SpaceX Reuses Falcon 9 Main Stage in Long-Awaited First

Private launch services provider SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket and then successfully had its main-stage segment drop back to Earth in a perfect upright landing, on December 21. The feat marks a long-awaited first for the company as well as the return-to-form of its founder-CEO Elon Musk after a quality-control issue saw a Falcon 9 blow up in June 2015 minutes after lift-off.

A quote by Musk on states that if the company became able to reuse rockets, “the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred”. Each Falcon 9 rocket alone currently costs SpaceX about $60 million.

Monday’s launch saw the rocket take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 8.29 pm (local time; December 22, 6.59 am IST). The main stage separated from the upper stage a few minutes later, with the latter going on to launch 11 satellites for SpaceX client ORBCOMM at 800 km. In the meantime, the main-stage segment returned and landed safely on a special pad about 10 km from the launch site. SpaceX had attempted such a landing thrice before in 2015 alone, all unsuccessful.

A diagram showing the sequence of actions between launching a Falcon 9 and its first stage returning safely. Source: SpaceX

A diagram showing the sequence of actions between launching a Falcon 9 and its first stage returning safely. Source: SpaceX

Responding to the achievement, Musk’s peer Jeff Bezos tweeted “Welcome to the club!”, alluding to his Blue Origins company having successfully reused the first stage of a rocket in a test flight in November 2015. However, SpaceX’s feat is elevated by having happened in the course of a regular commercial launch.

Responding to questions about what had changed since June, Musk said SpaceX had upgraded its testing platform and switched to a new supplier for steel struts used in the rocket. This is important because Musk had blamed the June accident on a two-foot-long steel strut that failed at 2,000 pounds of pressure though it had been designed to handle 10,000 pounds. He has remained silent about the supplier’s identity, which is to be expected.

SpaceX has upwards of 60 pending launches, all together worth about $80 billion. More importantly, it signed a contract with NASA – alongside Boeing – in September 2014 to provide homegrown launch capabilities to American astronauts by 2017. Following the close of its Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has paid the Russian space agency $70 million a seat to launch its space cadets. Ahead of this more symbolic deadline, SpaceX is expected to test the bigger version of its workhorse vehicle, the Falcon Heavy, in 2016.

Featured image: An F9R, a Falcon 9 prototype used during testing in 2014. Credit: SpaceX.