CAPE CANAVERAL (Florida) • An unmanned SpaceX rocket has blasted off from Florida to send a cargo ship to the International Space Station, then turned around and landed itself back at the launch site.
The 23-storey-tall Falcon 9 rocket, built and flown by Mr Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station yesterday.
Perched on top of the rocket was a Dragon capsule filled with nearly 2,268kg of food, supplies and equipment, including a miniature DNA sequencer, the first to fly in space.
Also aboard the capsule was a metal docking ring, 2.4m in diameter, that will be attached to the station, letting commercial spaceships under development by SpaceX and Boeing ferry astronauts to the US$100 billion (S$134.7 billion) laboratory about 400km above Earth.
The manned craft are scheduled to begin test flights next year.
Since Nasa retired its fleet of space shuttles five years ago, the United States has depended on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the station, at a cost of more than US$70 million per person.
As the Dragon cargo ship began its two-day journey to the station, yesterday, the main section of the Falcon 9 booster rocket separated and flew itself back to the ground.
Owned and operated by Mr Musk, the technology entrepreneur who founded Tesla Motors, SpaceX is developing rockets that can be refurbished and reused, potentially slashing launch costs.
With yesterday's touchdown, SpaceX has successfully landed Falcon rockets on the ground twice and on an ocean platform during three of its last four attempts.
SpaceX intends to launch one of its recovered rockets as early as this autumn, said Mr Hans Koenigsmann, the firm's vice-president for mission assurance.