A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Monday 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 gee-whiz spaceflight feat.
It was the first time an unmanned rocket returned to land vertically at Cape Canaveral and represented a tremendous success for SpaceX. The company led by billionaire Elon Musk is striving for reusability to drive launch costs down and open up space to more people.
“It's a revolutionary moment,” Musk later told reporters. “No one has ever brought a booster, an orbital-class booster, back intact.”
What's significant is that this was a useful mission, Musk noted, not merely a practice flight. “We achieved recovery of the rocket in a mission that actually deployed 11 satellites,” he said.
Monday's deployment completed a $200 million 17-satellite network that will provide machine-to-machine messaging services on the ground — such as between retailers and shipping containers.
After separation from its upper stage, the Falcon rocket's main stage turned around and fired a series of engine burns as the vehicle flew back to Earth, unfurled its landing legs and settled gently onto a newly revamped landing pad occupying a decommissioned missile site.
The smooth touchdown came nine minutes after liftoff. Previous landing attempts ended in fiery blasts, but those aimed for an ocean platform.
The top officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, noted that the returning booster “placed the exclamation mark on 2015.”
“This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can't even begin to describe the excitement the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing,” Monteith said in a statement.