SpaceX pulls off first reused rocket mission

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket taking off from the Kennedy Space Centre on Thursday.
Elon Musk

It's a key milestone in cutting flight costs and enabling people to one day live on other planets

CAPE CANAVERAL (Florida) • Billionaire Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) flew a rocket that had previously been in orbit out to space and back again - a key milestone in cutting flight costs and enabling people to one day live on other planets.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rumbled aloft on Thursday, deposited a customer's satellite in orbit and landed successfully on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, drawing raucous cheers from the crowd gathered at the firm's California headquarters.

The moment was 15 years in the making for Mr Musk, 45, who founded SpaceX with the eventual goal of colonising Mars.

"This going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in space flight," he said from Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Much of the expense of space travel lies in building engines, capsules and other equipment that are typically used once and then discarded. Business magnates, including Mr Musk and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, are racing to turn rocket reusability - once derided as a crazy idea - into a reality that will dramatically reduce costs.


The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket taking off from the Kennedy Space Centre on Thursday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Closely held SpaceX builds its rockets and engines in-house, wagering that this strategy better enables constant improvements, as well as greater collaboration between design and manufacturing.

The rocket launched on Thursday carried a communications satellite from Luxembourg's SES that will provide coverage to Latin America. The reflown rocket first took off and landed successfully on an unmanned drone ship bobbing in the Atlantic back in April last year.

SpaceX has now recovered nine rockets in total - three by land and six by sea.

Recovering and refurbishing the used rocket booster that flew on Thursday took the company roughly four months, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said earlier this month.

Eventually, that turnaround time will drop to a single day as the company seeks to reuse rockets much in the way airlines operate today.

SpaceX has successfully launched four rockets this year, and aims to fly 20 to 24 missions for the year.

Based in Hawthorne, California, the company has contracts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration valued at US$4.2 billion (S$5.9 billion) to resupply the International Space Station using its unmanned Dragon spacecraft, and later ferry astronauts there with a version capable of carrying crews.

Mr Musk announced last month that SpaceX plans to send two private citizens who paid "significant deposits" on a week-long flight circling the moon late next year.

DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE

I'm sort of at a loss for words. It's really a great day not just for SpaceX, but for the space industry as a whole, and proving that something could be done that many people said was impossible.

BILLIONAIRE ELON MUSK, on crossing yet another milestone in his overriding mission to colonise Mars one day.

"Congrats @SpaceX on another historic launch!" Nasa tweeted on Thursday.

SES, which has flown with SpaceX twice before, was the first commercial satellite operator to launch with the firm back in 2013.

Although the price of the launch was not disclosed, SES chief technology officer Martin Halliwell said his company received a discount for being first in line.

"I'm sort of at a loss for words," Mr Musk said on the SpaceX webcast. "It's really a great day not just for SpaceX, but for the space industry as a whole, and proving that something could be done that many people said was impossible."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2017, with the headline 'SpaceX pulls off first reused rocket mission'. Print Edition | Subscribe