SpaceX sent a Falcon rocket soaring toward orbit last night with 11 small satellites—its first mission since an accident last summer.
Then in an even more astounding feat, it landed the 15-storey leftover booster back on Earth safely.
It was the first time an unmanned rocket returned to land vertically at Cape Canaveral, Fla. and represented a tremendous success for SpaceX.
The company led by billionaire Elon Musk is striving for reusability to drive launch costs down and open up space to more people.
“Welcome back, baby!” Musk tweeted after touchdown.
“It’s a revolutionary moment,” Musk later told reporters.
“No one has ever brought a booster, an orbital-class booster, back intact.”
What’s significant is that this was a useful mission, Musk noted, not merely a practice flight.
“We achieved recovery of the rocket in a mission that actually deployed 11 satellites,” he said.
SpaceX employees broke into cheers and chants—some of them jumping up and down—following the smooth touchdown nine minutes after lift-off.
Previous landing attempts ended in fiery blasts but those aimed for an ocean platform.
Musk said he ran outside and heard the sonic boom of the returning booster just as it landed; he assumed it had exploded.
He learned the happy truth when he went back into launch control and saw video of the standing rocket.
“I can’t quite believe it,” he said. “It’s quite shocking.”
Musk said the landing appeared close to perfect and the company “could not have asked for a better mission or a better day.”
Across the country, SpaceX employees jammed company headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. anxiously awaiting success.
They cheered at full throttle when the first stage separated cleanly two minutes into flight and then re-oriented itself for an unprecedented return to Cape Canaveral.
Then the roar became deafening as TV cameras showed the first-stage booster landing on extended legs at its new, dedicated landing zone.
Blue Origin—another billionaire’s rocket company—successfully landed a booster last month in West Texas.
That rocket, though, had been used for a suborbital flight.
The SpaceX booster was more powerful and flying faster in order to put satellites into orbit.