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SpaceX Falcon 9 landing
The first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket stands erect on a drone ship after landing. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX launched a Dragon cargo capsule today with an expandable module for the International Space Station, and then successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on an oceangoing platform.

The Atlantic Ocean landing, accomplished after four not-quite-successful attempts, was greeted by wild cheering at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. “USA! USA!” they chanted.

“This is a really good milestone for the future of spaceflight,” SpaceX’s billionaire CEO, Elon Musk, told reporters afterward at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “It’s another step toward the stars.”

It was also the capper for a remarkable comeback. The last time SpaceX tried sending a Dragon to the space station, the Falcon 9 rocket came apart shortly after launch. The problem was traced to a faulty strut inside the second stage.

SpaceX addressed the issue, and the Falcon 9 went on to execute three successful satellite launches. Today’s launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida came off successfully as well, and in the minutes afterward, attention turned to the landing.

Today marked the first time any rocket has made a controlled landing on an oceangoing platform, rather than splashing down. The feat required pinpoint accuracy as the Falcon 9 first stage decelerated during a supersonic descent from a height of well more than 60 miles. In the final moments, the rocket’s Merlin engines gave a final blast and the booster settled to rest on its four landing legs.

Landing the first stage after liftoff is part of SpaceX’s plan to increase rocket reusability and reduce launch costs. In December, a Falcon 9 booster was successfully brought back to a landing pad near the Florida launch site, but the company wanted to perfect an at-sea landing because that’s the scenario it’ll have to deal with for about half of its launches.

During the four previous at-sea attempts, the Falcon 9 either hit the deck too hard or toppled over, each time resulting in a fiery crash. This time, the autonomous drone ship – nicknamed “Of Course I Still Love You” in honor of the sentient starships in Iain M. Banks’ sci-fi novels – is bringing the booster back to port intact.

Musk said the recovered booster would get a thorough checkout, including 10 test firings of its rocket engines. If it passes all the tests, the first stage could be readied for another launch in June, he said.

“In the future we hope we’ll be able to relaunch them within a few weeks,” Musk said.

But the success of this mission doesn’t depend on the landing or the booster’s condition. Rather, the primary goal is to deliver the cargo to the space station.

“Everything’s going well,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of flight reliability, said at today’s post-launch news conference. “It’s an awesome day.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)

The most important payload is an experiment known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM.

The 3,100-pound, 5-foot-tall module, built for NASA by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, is designed to be attached to a port on the station’s Tranquility node. Once it’s hooked up, it can inflate to become a 13-foot-long, 10.5-foot-diameter room.

The astronauts can float inside to hang out, but BEAM won’t be used for critical functions. Instead, NASA will monitor how it stands up in the space environment.

The results of the experiment are likely to be factored into the construction of next-generation space modules for use in commercial space stations, or as habitats for missions to the moon or Mars.

SpaceX’s Dragon is also carrying another two tons of supplies, equipment and experiments – including astro-mice that will be given drugs to see if they can avoid the bone loss and muscle wasting associated with long-term spaceflight.

“The mice are doing well, that’s what I heard,” Musk said jokingly. “There’s a bunch of mousetronauts on board.”

Other experiments will try analyzing DNA in orbit, creating zero-G protein crystals and growing fresh Chinese cabbage.

Astronauts will use the station’s robotic arm to pull the Dragon in for its berthing on Sunday. Over the course of more than a month, the capsule will be unloaded and then filled back up with scientific samples and other materials for return to Earth. The Dragon would be set loose in May for a splashdown in the Pacific, off the coast of Baja California.

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