Today SpaceX did something it’s never done before: reusing a Falcon 9 rocket booster that’s already been launched and landed.
The Falcon 9 mission to send the SES-10 communications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit lifted off at 6:27 p.m. ET (3:27 p.m. PT) from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, marking a milestone in SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s drive to lower the cost of access to space.
More remarkably, the booster landed once more at sea after sending a payload into orbit. SpaceX was even able to bring the rocket’s payload fairing down for a parachute-aided splashdown in the Atlantic, Musk reported afterward.
“It’s an amazing day for space as a whole, for the space industry,” he said just after the landing. He paid tribute to the SpaceX team, saying “it’s been 15 years to get to this point.”
As he spoke, hundreds of SpaceX’s employees were cheering at the company’s California headquarters, and the launch webcast was getting 140,000 simultaneous views.
If repeat liftoffs and landings become routine, SpaceX estimates that could reduce the cost of a launch by 10 to 30 percent, which could shave from $6 million to $20 million off the already-low $62 million list price for a Falcon 9 mission. Musk says that’s the kind of reusability required to make trips to Mars affordable.
“This is going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in spaceflight,” Musk said. “It’s the difference between, if you had airplanes where you threw away an airplane after every flight, versus you could reuse them multiple times.”
SpaceX has recovered eight first-stage boosters after launch: three on land, and five at sea. The booster that was reused for today’s launch made its maiden flight almost a year ago, sending a robotic Dragon capsule toward the International Space Station and then landing at sea.
In the months since then, SpaceX refurbished the first stage, tested it and added a brand-new second stage to the stack. Eventually, the company aims to trim the turnaround time to a matter of weeks, days or even hours.
Luxembourg-based SES got an undisclosed price break for being the first to go with a booster that SpaceX likes to call “flight-proven.”
The first-stage booster sent the 5.5-ton satellite on the first leg of its trek to geostationary orbit, more than 22,000 miles above Earth. From that height, SES-10 will provide enhanced Ku-band video and data services to Latin America.
Minutes after launch, the Falcon 9’s second stage separated and continued the ascent. The first stage then relit its Merlin rocket engines to slow down its supersonic descent, and maneuvered toward a floating platform known as “Of Course I Still Love You,” stationed hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.
The video for the webcast was momentarily lost, introducing a few seconds of suspense. But an announcer called out that the landing was a success, and a restored video feed showed the booster standing tall on the autonomous drone ship, sparking a fresh round of cheers at SpaceX’s headquarters.
Cheers rose again about a half-hour later when the second stage relit its rocket engine and put SES-10 into its proper orbit.
Musk said the relaunched, re-recovered booster will be brought back to the Florida coast, and would probably be donated to Cape Canaveral. “We think this one has some historic value, so we’re thinking of seeing if perhaps the Cape might like to have it as something to remember the moment,” Musk said.
Over the past year and a half, Blue Origin has launched the same New Shepard rocket booster five times for suborbital test flights, earning accolades for the Seattle-area space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. However, SpaceX’s orbital launches are far more challenging, leading some to call today’s advance in rocket reusability a “Wright Brothers moment for space.”
During a post-launch news conference, Musk said he expected other space companies to move toward full rocket reusability, just as SpaceX is doing. Blue Origin, for example, plans to have its New Glenn orbital boosters fly themselves back to an oceangoing platform that looks a lot like SpaceX’s drone ship.
“What’s that saying about the best form of flattery?” Musk joked.
Martin Halliwell, chief technical officer for SES, said he’s already planning to have two more of his satellite payloads put on flight-proven Falcon 9 rockets, and he predicted that others will quickly follow suit.
“My belief is, within 24 months … it’ll be irrelevant if it’s new or it’s pre-flown,” Halliwell said.