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SpaceX’s Rocket Stuck the Landing

During the first Falcon 9 launch in six months, the first stage booster rocket make a neat u-turn in air and a clean landing on the ground

A long exposure captures the Falcon 9's launch and return. ( Michael Seeley/Demotix/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

“The Falcon has landed,” a SpaceX commentator announced on a live webcast on Monday evening. A crowded control room erupted into cheers as workers jumped and hugged, celebrating the successful, historic landingThe company's rocket had just sent its payload into orbit and returned to a landing pad, reports Christian Davenport for The Washington Post.  

The Falcon 9 rocket blasted from Cape Canaveral, Florida on December 21 at 8:29 p.m. to deliver 11 satellites to orbit for the communications company Orbcomm. A few minutes into the flight, the second stage of the rocket detached and continued its way on up. The booster made a turn in the air and headed back to solid ground, sticking the landing, aided by the fins on its sides.

This was the first time SpaceX has landed this first stage rocket booster, and is a major step towards reusable rockets and more affordable space travel. Elon Musk, the company’s CEO and founder called the pinpoint, upright landing a “revolutionary moment,” Davenport reports.

“It’s really a massive difference if we can make reusability work,” Musk said last week, according to James Dean at Florida Today

The feat comes less than a month after the successful launch and landing of another reusable rocket by the space-exploration company, Blue Origin. However the more recent launch was a greater challenge. SpaceX’s rocket is heavier and more powerful than Blue Origin’s. It was also designed to send payloads to orbit, rather than just reaching the edge of what is considered space, before landing again.

That greater challenge means that SpaceX had to fight hard for success. The first Falcon 9 blasted off in 2012. The company made two attempts earlier this year to land the rocket on a platform floating in the Atlantic Ocean. Both rockets reached the target but crashed. A Falcon 9 rocket that failed to make it into orbit safely in late June even made some people doubt the reliance on commercial companies for the spacecraft NASA uses. SpaceX and Boeing are contracted with the space agency to get American astronauts into space. 

Monday evening’s launch for SpaceX, however, was the first since the June crash. It’s success buoyed the company and likely the industry itself. Reusable rockets could make routine space travel a reality.

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