Early Monday morning, SpaceX pulled off an impressive feat when the Falcon 9 reusable rocket thundered off of Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Then, once the rocket's cargo had been safely propelled into space, zooming toward the International Space Station, which was loitering a couple hundred miles above the planet over the North Atlantic, the Falcon 9 stage one booster did something even more impressive. The booster gently touched back down a few miles south of the launchpad.
SpaceX employees were intently watching the launch from company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, according to the Associated Press. Cheers erupted from the employees as the 15-story booster smoothly touched down.
"It's a great day for SpaceX, a great day for NASA," Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy manager of ISS utilization, said during a post-launch news conference, according to Space.com. "The launch campaign was just fantastic to watch."
This marks the fifth time that Elon Musk's commercial space company has successfully landed a rocket booster after a launch, and the first time SpaceX has managed to land a booster after a NASA mission launch specifically.
The launch also saw SpaceX finally pull off sending a new space station docking port to the ISS. The last time SpaceX attempted to launch such a port, in June 2015, the endeavor came to an abrupt and unceremonious end when the company's Falcon 9 rocket lifted off and then disintegrated over Florida.
In the aftermath of the misfire last summer, Musk announced that the explosion was caused when a strut holding a high-pressure helium bottle failed during the second stage of the launch. However, instead of crumpling in the face of that failure, SpaceX counteracted the humiliation and bad press resulting from a rocket's ignominiously going boom by pulling off the first successful touchdown of a Falcon 9 booster in December 2015. Musk has long maintained that rapidly reusable rockets are key to tackling missions because reusable rockets could make spaceflight a lot more affordable, according to Musk. SpaceX is planning to conduct its first launch of a recycled booster rocket sometime this fall.
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And now, SpaceX has pulled off the launch-and-landing trick during an actual NASA mission.
The company was also completing the original task assigned by NASA by sending the docking adapter it had tried and failed to deliver last year when its rocket exploded. It was still dark on Monday morning when the Falcon 9 thundered off the runway and sent the unmanned Dragon capsule into orbit, toting the docking adapter. The adapter is pretty important because it will allow crewed spacecraft to more easily dock with the ISS. This includes the manned version of the SpaceX Dragon, which will be one of the vessels to benefit from this modified docking adapter being installed on the space station.
As NASA continues to hand over ISS duties to the commercial spaceflight industry while the federal space agency sharpens its focus on getting to Mars by the 2030s, the government expects companies like SpaceX to start shuttling astronaut crews to the space station.
In fact, the manned Dragon is slated to start taking astronauts to the ISS next year. Hope all the kinks and concerns about the commercial spaceflight industry have been worked out by then.