SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifted up from Cape Canaveral at 5:39 p.m., carrying a Thaicom commercial communications satellite to orbit. Given the distance the rocket had to travel to deliver its payload Friday, and the massive amount of energy it would take to get there, SpaceX hedged on the success of the return, saying that “the first stage will be subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating, making a successful landing challenging.”
But then the video showed the rocket screaming back from space, its engines firing to slow it down. And then cameras from the ship showed it standing triumphantly once again.
Over the past couple of years Musk's space company has been perfecting the difficult art of landing rockets so they could be reused instead of being ditched into the ocean as had been the practice since the 1960s-Apollo era.
Coming into Friday's launch, which was postponed from Thursday after Musk said there was a "tiny glitch" with the rocket's upper stage, SpaceX had pulled off landings three times. First, it landed a stage at Cape Canaveral in December. Then it followed with two landings at sea this spring. The rocket in last landing "took max damage, due to v high entry velocity," Musk tweeted this month.
During the webcast before the launch Friday, Lauren Lyons of SpaceX, said the conditions of Friday's landing was similar to the last landing, earlier this month, when it touched down with just three seconds of propellant left in the tank. During that landing, the rocket went from traveling at some 6,300 km per hour when it hit the atmosphere to just 4 km per hour when it landed just off the bulls eye. That showed such a high velocity landing is "not impossible," she said.
When SpaceX became the first company to ever vertically land an orbital-class rocket, Musk said he thought it would improve his chances of eventually getting to Mars, his ultimate goal. Being able to reuse rockets not only reduces the cost, but the technology is key to landing on the Red Planet where there are no runways and the relatively thin atmosphere make landings tricky, especially for large masses.
Recently the company announced that it plans to land an unmanned Dragon capsule on Mars as soon as 2018. It’s an ambitious timeline, especially given that its Falcon Heavy rocket, which would carry the spacecraft, isn’t scheduled to have its maiden flight until later this year. But the company has been working on developing capsules that also land using their own power, that is, firing their engines as a way to slow down before touching down softly.
Once a spunky startup, SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, Calif., has become a major force in the burgeoning space industry, with more than 4,000 employees, a backlog of orders to launch commercial satellites and multi-billion dollar contracts with NASA to fly cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station on its Falcon 9 rocket.
The Thaicom 8 satellite it delivered Thursday was made by Dulles-based Orbital ATK and is to serve Thailand, India and Africa.