A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket recovered at sea from its maiden flight last year blasted off again from Florida on Thursday in the first successful launch of a recycled orbital-class booster, then capped the feat with another return landing on an ocean platform.
The unprecedented twin achievements of relaunching a used rocket and salvaging the vehicle yet again were hailed by billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk as a revolutionary step in his quest to slash launch costs and shorten intervals between space shots.
“This is a huge day,” Musk told reporters after the launch. “My mind’s blown.”
Photo: EPA / SPACEX
It took Space Exploration Technologies Corp, as the California-based company is formally known, 15 years to demonstrate that a rocket typically discarded in the ocean after a single flight could be recovered and reused.
The SpaceX chief executive said his next goal is to turn the booster around for relaunch within 24 hours, a milestone he said could be accomplished before the end of the year.
“The potential is there for [an] over 100-fold reduction in the cost of access to space. If we can achieve that, it means humanity can become a space-faring civilization and be out there among the stars. This is what we want for the future,” Musk said.
The Falcon 9 booster, which previously flew in April last year, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 6:27pm to put a communications satellite into orbit for Luxembourg-based SES SA.
The booster’s main section then separated from the rest of the rocket and flew itself back to a landing pad in the Atlantic Ocean, where it successfully touched down for its second at-sea return.
“We made a little bit of history today... opened the door into a whole new era of spaceflight,” SES chief technology officer Martin Halliwell said at a news conference with Musk.
SpaceX landed an orbital rocket after launch for the first time in December 2015, a feat it has now repeated eight times. The Falcon 9 booster launched for the company’s 33rd mission on Thursday was also the first to make a successful return landing in the ocean.
By reusing rockets, SpaceX aims to eventually cut its costs by about 30 percent, the company has said. It lists the cost of a Falcon 9 ride at US$62 million, but has not yet announced a price for flying on a recycled rocket.
Not all the savings are to be passed on to SpaceX customers, some of whom were awaiting the outcome of Thursday’s flight before agreeing to fly on a used booster, Musk said.
The company spent at least US$1 billion developing the technology to land and refly its rockets, and aims to recoup its investment in the next year or so, he said.
The boosters are expected to be able to fly 10 times with no refurbishment and about 100 times with moderate reconditioning, though the one launched on Thursday is to be donated to the Cape Canaveral Spaceport for display, Musk said.
Proving the concept works is crucial to SpaceX, which is moving on from an accident in September last year that damaged another Florida site.
SpaceX is also working on a passenger spaceship, with two unidentified tourists signed up for a future trip around the moon. The company’s long-term goal under Musk is to establish a colony on Mars, and ferry people and cargo back and forth between the planets.
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