SpaceX Breaks Open New Era of Reusable Rocketry
published during a waxing crescent moon.
03/30/2017

SpaceX made history today with the first successful launch of a flight-proven orbital-capacity rocket. The Falcon 9 first stage rocket launched for a second time on March 30, 2017, delivering a telecommunications satellite into orbit and landing on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX Breaks Open New Era

SpaceX makes history by launching the same orbital-class rocket for a second time on March 30, 2017. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has long been working towards reusable rocketry, passing milestones by landing and recovering the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket. Today for the first time, they completed a mission using a refurbished rocket.

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Stage 1 Separation. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon

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Fairing separation. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon

The rocket blasted off at the start of the 2.5-hour launch window at 6:27pm Eastern. The primary mission performed perfectly, with the SES satellite deployed into orbit approximately 32 minutes after launch. The SES satellite will be in geostationary orbit providing communications satellite to Latin America and supporting off-shore oil and gas exploration.

The secondary mission of recovering the Falcon 9 stage 1 rocket for a second time was also successful, with the rocket landing on the “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The satellite live feed from the drone ship cut off during landing. During a post-landing press conference, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested the reused booster may be gifted to Cape Canaveral as a historic gift.

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Falcoln-9 Rocket Landing on Barge. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon

For the first time, SpaceX also recovered the payload fairing from the spacecraft, extending possibilities of greater hardware reuse on future rockets. The fairing has thrust control and a steerable parachute. It was recovered half-floating after splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

This Falcon 9 rocket originally launched in April 2016, propelling a Dragon spacecraft on a cargo run to the International Space Station. It landed on the same drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean that it touched down on again today.

SpaceX is not the first aerospace company to pursue reusability, although it’s made the greatest technological advances in making it economically feasible for commercial spaceflight. Blue Origin successfully launched, recovered, re-launched and re-recovered its smaller New Shepard suborbital rocket last year. NASA’s space shuttle boosters were also recovered and reused from 1981 through 2011, but the solid-fuelled boosters used parachutes to splash down into the ocean. SpaceX hopes that its liquid-fuelled rockets and vertical landings will reduce refurbishment costs compared to the space shuttle boosters.

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Falcoln-9 Launch-fading away. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon

Musk announced that up to six more refurbished rockets will fly on SpaceX missions this year. He intends to use two refurbished boosters during the inaugural Falcon Heavy launch.

The company did not announce how long it took to refurbish the rocket nor how much it cost. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell estimates that the company will give 30% discounts to customers with flight plans that allow the company to recover the rocket, and offer a 10% discount to customers flying on a refurbished rocket. During the post-landing press conference, Musk cited the Falcon 9 first stage as 70% of total launch costs, with propellent adding only 0.3% of the total cost.

As for this first flight, Chief technology officer for SES Martin Halliwell previously told Spaceflight Now, “I can’t go into the specific pricing, but we did get a discount for being an early adopter of the technology.” Whatever the cost, this was a key moment in creating a future of reusable rocketry.
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Falcoln-9 Stage 1 Final Deployment. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon

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Falcoln-9 Stage 1 Reentry Burn. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon

When congratulating his team on today’s accomplishment, Musk immediately set an ambitious new milestone:

Excited by the launch? SpaceX made the most of its success by slipping a casual hiring note into their livestream to keep pushing forward the future of rocketry.

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Launch Close-up. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon

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Launch Overview. Credit: SpaceX/Mika McKinnon