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SpaceX Falcon's return
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first-stage booster makes its way back to the company’s processing facility in Florida after its recovery at sea. (Credit: USLaunchReport.com via YouTube)

Eleven days after a thrilling landing at sea, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket booster is coming back to the company’s space-age garage in Florida, in preparation for engine tests and potentially the first-ever reuse of its rocket hardware.

The Falcon blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and lofted a Dragon cargo capsule toward the International Space Station on April 8. Minutes after launch, the first-stage booster made an unprecedented touchdown onto an autonomous spaceport drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

It took a few days for the ship to come back to Florida’s Port Canaveral in Florida. Then the booster was packed up for a slow, careful trip back to SpaceX’s launch processing facility at Kennedy Space Center. Visitors happened to catch video of the Falcon passing by today.

Over the next few weeks, the 156-foot-long booster will undergo inspections and potential test firings of its rocket engines. SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, says the first stage could be reused for a launch as early as May or June if everything checks out.

That would mark the first reuse of Falcon 9 hardware – a step that SpaceX officials say eventually could reduce the cost of access to orbit by 30 percent. Eventually, Musk wants to cut the cost to a hundredth of today’s going rate, which would require lots more reusable parts.

“If you throw away the rockets every time, it’s crazy expensive to go to space,” Musk told CBS late-show host Stephen Colbert last year. “But if you can refly the rockets, it could be comparable to air flight in its costs.”

In December, SpaceX brought a Falcon 9 booster back for a touchdown at its “Landing Zone 1” in Florida, but that rocket is destined to go on display and won’t be going back into space.

Meanwhile, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is making rapid progress on the reusability front with Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship. Musk and Bezos have been rivals in the space business, but they agree on at least one thing: Rocket reusability is a must for reducing launch costs enough to have millions of people living and working in space.

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