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Elon Musk’s SpaceX returns to flight and pulls off dramatic, historic landing

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX returns to flight and pulls off dramatic, historic landing

The Washington Post, By Christian Davenport, December 21 at 8:46 PM

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket at its landing pad here Monday evening in its first flight since its rocket exploded six months ago.

The historic landing, the first time a rocket launched a payload into orbit and then returned safely to Earth, was cheered as a sign that SpaceX, the darling of the commercial space industry, has its momentum back.

“The Falcon has landed,” a SpaceX commentator said on the live webcast, as workers at its headquarters went wild, chanting “USA! USA!”

Falcon 9 Space X and Dragon cargo spacecraft

Monday’s flight, initially delayed because of technical concerns, was the second time in a month that a billionaire-backed venture launched a rocket into space and recovered it. And it represents yet another significant step forward in the quest to open up the cosmos to the masses.

Typically, rocket boosters are used once, burning up or crashing into the ocean after liftoff. But Musk, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal and Tesla, and Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com who has his own space company, have been working on creating reusable rockets that land vertically by using their engine thrust. If they are able to recover rockets and fly them again and again, it would dramatically lower the cost of space flight.

Reusing the first stage, which houses the engine and is the most expensive part of the rocket, was thought impossible by many just a few years ago. But last month Bezos’ Blue Origin flew a rocket to the edge of space, and landed it in a remote swath of West Texas. (Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

On Monday, SpaceX’s first flight since its Falcon 9 rocket blew up in June, Musk topped his fellow tech billionaire and space rival, by landing a larger, more powerful rocket designed to send payloads to orbit, and not just past the boundary of what’s considered space. It was a much more complicated feat that was celebrated as another leap forward for Musk and his merry band of rocketeers.

SpaceX’s unmanned—and recently upgraded— Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. at 8:29 p.m. on a mission to deliver 11 commercial satellites into space for Orbcomm, a communications company. A few minutes later, the second stage separated and headed further on while the towering booster performed an aerial U-turn, and headed back to Earth, hurtling back through gusty winds and using its engine thrust to slow down.

Guided by fins on the side of the rocket, it steered toward the landing pad SpaceX has built on the Cape—Landing Zone 1—and touched down vertically in a dramatic, pinpoint landing.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch profile

Art by Jon Ross.

The Future of Space Launch is Near

Previously, SpaceX had attempted to land the first stage on a floating platform Musk calls an “autonomous spaceport drone ship.” Twice the rockets hit the barge, but they came down too hard or at a slight angle, and exploded.

Monday’s landing is yet another breakthrough for SpaceX, which was the first commercial company hired by NASA to ferry supplies to the International Space Station. And it won another contract, along with Boeing, to fly astronauts to the station, as soon as 2017.

But as SpaceX, based outside of L.A., has evolved from spunky start-up to a mainstream space company, it remains focused on its main mission: one day flying to Mars, which Musk hopes humans will eventually colonize. While it has raised revenue by flying for NASA and commercial satellite companies, SpaceX has continued to push toward developing the technologies that eventually would make humans a “multi-planet species,” as Musk says.

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