SpaceX Falcon 9 Returns to Duty, Delivers Satellites, Lands Safely

SpaceX Falcon 9 Returns to Duty, Delivers Satellites, Lands Safely

SpaceX achieved three significant objectives tonight:  the return to flight of its Falcon 9 rocket, the successful delivery of 11 ORBCOMM OG-2 communications satellites to orbit, and a historic landing of the rocket’s first stage back to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL.  SpaceX is not the first to return a rocket or spacecraft to land on Earth, but it is the first private company to conduct a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) of a rocket on an orbital (rather than suborbital) trajectory successfully.

This was the first flight of a Falcon 9 since a June 28, 2015 failure.   The rocket launched today is an upgraded version with a number of improvements, including the use of supercooled liquid oxygen that provides additional thrust.

The first launch of any rocket following a failure is an exciting event in the space community, but SpaceX reached for a higher level by deciding to attempt to land the rocket’s first stage back at CCAFS on this flight, too.   The company has tested landing several times, including twice on an autonomous drone ship at sea. Those tests were unsuccessful, but the second time was close.  

Tonight, they landed on terra firma just a few miles down the coast from where the rocket had launched just 10 minutes earlier.  SpaceX East Coast launches take place from Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) at CCAFS, which is adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  SpaceX has converted a different Launch Complex, LC-13, into its  “Landing Zone 1.”  That is where the first stage landed this evening.  The Air Force Space & Missile Museum has a map showing where all the CCAFS launch pads are located.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage lands at Landing Zone 1, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, December 21, 2015.
Image clipped from SpaceX webcast.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk later tweeted a composite “there and back again” photo:

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket composite “there and back again” photo tweeted by @elonmusk, December 21, 2015

The landing test is part of Musk’s drive to create a reusable rocket.  He believes reusability will lower costs.  That was one of the goals of NASA’s space shuttle program, but over its 30 years of operation (1981-2011), its costs remained very high.  There are at least three methods for calculating launch costs — marginal cost, average cost, or full cost — so varying figures are used for the cost of a shuttle launch, but the program was funded at $3-4 billion a year for between one and four flights in the final years, so $1 billion per launch is a commonly used figure.

The technical challenges of returning a vehicle to Earth are one hurdle, but the economic challenges may be even greater.   Many analysts conclude that a high launch rate is needed to make a reusable system economical.  A high launch rate allows fixed costs to be amortized over a large base.

Tonight’s test was of the technology and it proved out.  Whether a reusable Falcon 9 is economical remains to be seen.

The Falcon 9 is not the first rocket to land safely back on Earth.   Last month, for example, Blue Origin, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos who also believes in reusablity, launched and landed a New Shepard suborbital rocket.  That feat received considerable publicity, although Blue Origin did not reveal the test had taken place until the next day — after it knew the test was a success.

Bezos tweeted congratulations to SpaceX tonight, but with a reminder that his rocket did it first.

Musk and others pointed out at the time that as impressive as the Blue Origin achievement was, the challenges are greater with a rocket traveling on an orbital trajectory.

Space aficionados can debate what vehicle deserves the honor of being known as the first reusable rocket — the X-15, DC-X and SpaceShipOne are candidates — but NASA’s space shuttle was the only operational reusable launch vehicle.

Excitement over the landing almost overshadowed what is perhaps the more important near-term achievement of getting the Falcon 9 back in business.  The company has a long backlog of government and commercial customers waiting their turns.  Three more Falcon 9 rockets are scheduled for launch in the next two months, including a cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA.  The June 28 failure destroyed a Dragon capsule full of ISS supplies.  NASA is anxious to get the next Dragon to ISS and launch is currently scheduled for sometime in February.  Before that, SpaceX has launches of a commercial communications satellite for SES (SES-9) and a NOAA/Eumetsat/NASA/CNES ocean altimetry satellite (Jason-3) on its schedule. Jason-3 will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA; the others are from CCAFS.

SpaceX not only is one of two competitors that launch commercial cargo missions to the ISS for NASA (Orbital ATK is the other), but was chosen by NASA to be one of two companies to build commercial crew vehicles to take crews back and forth as well (Boeing is the other).   In the just-passed FY2016 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress provided NASA with the full $1.244 billion requested to support the commercial crew program with a goal of the first crew launches in 2017.  Those SpaceX launches also will use Falcon 9 rockets.


User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.