On Saturday, just before 10 A.M. local time a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying 10 communication satellites. The bundle of devices belong to Iridium, a company that specializes in satellite phones, and were intended to help restore the company's aging fleet, report Andy Pasztor and Rolfe Winkler at The Wall Street Journal. Though commercial satellite launches are barely newsworthy these days, this one was special: It marked aerospace company SpaceX’s return to the commercial space race four months after a catastrophic launch pad explosion in 2016 and another successful land if its reusable rocket.
On September 1, another Falcon 9 rocket caught fire and exploded while it was being fueled before a test run at Cape Canaveral, Florida, reports Kenneth Chang at The New York Times. The explosion destroyed the $200 million AMOS-6 Satellite, which Facebook and French company Eutelsat were planning to use to connect people in remote areas around the globe to the internet.
In November, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced they uncovered the cause of the explosion. It turns out that the supercooled liquid oxygen used to fuel the rocket came in contact with liquid helium tanks, which cooled the O2 even more. The oxygen solidified, buckling the carbon-fiber helium tanks, setting off a chain of explosions that destroyed the rocket and its cargo.
That followed a June 2015 incident in which a SpaceX resupply mission to the International Space Station exploded just minutes into its flight. The recent flight was seen as a test of whether SpaceX could correct its problem and continue to push the commercial space business forward.
Alan Boyle at Geekwire points out that the flight was important for another reason. SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of the rocket on a drone platform stationed in the Pacific Ocean. This is the sixth time the company has landed a rocket. According to Pasztor and Winkler, SpaceX hopes to save significant money in the future by reusing its rockets, which had been one-time use vehicles, until recently.
The private space race has heated up in recent years. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' private space company, Blue Origin, hopes to put space tourists into orbit by 2018. Billionaire Richard Branson also hopes to put tourists in space, though a 2014 explosion of his space plane SpaceShipTwo caused him to suspend operation for several years. Aerospace giant Boeing is also pushing for dominance in the space world. Not only is it competing with SpaceX for contracts to put commercial satellites in orbit, the two companies have competing visions for getting humans to Mars.
But that’s still far in the future. For now, transporting satellites and supplies into orbit are big accomplishments for private space companies. But the next step is fast approaching—in the next couple years, NASA plans on turning over trips to the International Space Station to Boeing and SpaceX so the U.S. no longer has to rely on the Russians for space transport. That move will allow the agency to concentrate on bigger missions, like a trip to the Red Planet and will be the ultimate test for the emerging companies.