CAPE CANAVERAL • A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida with a payload of communications satellites before the reusable main-stage booster turned around, soared back to Cape Canaveral and landed safely near its launch pad in a dramatic spaceflight first.
The successful mission, capped by delivery of all 11 satellites to orbit for launch customer Orbcomm, unfolded in just over 30 minutes and marked a pivotal reversal of fortunes for privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, founded by high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Monday's flight was the first for his California-based company since a rocket failure in June which destroyed a cargo ship being carried on a resupply mission bound for the International Space Station.
The upgraded, 23-storey-tall Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 9.29am Singapore time yesterday, with the nine-engine suborbital main stage returning 10 minutes later to a landing site a few kilometres south of its launch pad.
The upper-stage booster continued its ascent to Earth orbit with its payload.
SpaceX employees erupted in jubilation as they watched live video footage of the white first-stage booster slowly descending upright through a damp, darkened night sky amid a glowing orange ball of light to make a picture-perfect landing.
"Welcome back, baby!" Mr Musk wrote in a celebratory Twitter message he posted. He has said the ability to return his rockets to Earth so that they can be refurbished and reflown would slash his company's operational costs in the burgeoning and highly competitive private space launch industry.
Rival company Blue Origin, a space start-up founded by Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos, nailed a similar return rocket landing test last month.
In a seemingly back-handed compliment to SpaceX, Mr Bezos tweeted a message of congratulations to Mr Musk's company, saying: "Welcome to the club!" But the SpaceX feat, which the company had characterised before launch as a "secondary test objective", was achieved during an actual commercial mission.
SpaceX plans two launches next month: Another commercial satellite and an ocean science satellite for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It aims to resume supply missions to the space station in February.