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Watch SpaceX’s Recycled Rocket Stick Its Landing

The reused Falcon 9 booster rocket may usher in an era of cheaper and more frequent trips into space

SpaceX launches it's first re-used Falcon 9 rocket (SpaceX)
smithsonian.com

For SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company, retrieving a rocket after it reaches orbit is now routine; for the last two years SpaceX has been handily landing the 14-story first-stage boosters of its Falcon 9 rockets after each mission. Last Thursday, however, the company took it a step further by successfully launching and landing a used, refurbished rocket booster after delivering a satellite into orbit—a development that could greatly reduce the costs associated with space flight. 

But since the livestream of the flight cutout right before the main event, few saw it happen. ​So SpaceX just released a ground-level video of the historic landing on Instagram, Nick Statt reports for The Verge.

According to Kenneth Chang at The New York Times, the rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, carrying a telecommunications satellite for the Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES before landing on an ocean-based platform. The booster was the same one used in April of 2016 to take a cargo load to the International Space Station before landing on the same floating platform in the Atlantic.

After the booster was recovered from its maiden voyage, Chang reports, ​SpaceX inspected and refurbished the rocket, but the company has not released details on that process. It was successfully test fired at a SpaceX facility in Texas in January before returning to service last week.

Being able reuse a rockets is big business. That’s because, recycled rockets (people are calling them “pre-flown” and “flight proven,” reports Chang) could significantly reduce the cost and prep time for space flight. While SpaceX is a private company and does not often discuss its finances, Irene Klotz at Reuters reports that the list price for sending up a Falcon 9 rocket is $62 million. Reusing the rockets could cut costs by up to 30 percent, the company says.

Musk compares tossing out an orbital rocket booster, a complex machine that costs tens of millions of dollars to build, to throwing away a 747 after just one flight, Chang reports. SpaceX hopes that its boosters can fly up to ten times without a significant overhaul and up to 100 times with only moderate reconditioning, reports Klotz. The company was also able to recover the $6 million satellite enclosure, which parachuted down from orbit, and could lead to further cost savings, reports Marcia Dunn at AP.

“The potential is there for [an] over 100-fold reduction in the cost of access to space. If we can achieve that, it means humanity can become a space-faring civilization and be out there among the stars. This is what we want for the future,” Musk tells Klotz.

The next step, according to a tweet from Musk, is relaunching a Falcon 9 within 24 hours, something that SpaceX hopes will be routine by next year, Dunn reports. The company aims to launch six more recycled rockets later this year and has also announced plans to send two paying customers around the moon in 2018 and launch an unmanned craft called Red Dragon to Mars in 2020.

The rocket that launched last week, however, has made its last trip. As Dunn reports, the rocket booster will stay at the Space Flight Center as a tourist attraction.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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