Last night at 8:29pm ET, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket leapt off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida in a mission to put 11 communications satellites in orbit for Orbcomm. It was SpaceX’s first mission since June, when a cargo mission to the International Space Station went south after a strut in the second stage of the rocket failed.
Last night, the rocket performed its primary mission in putting the satellites into orbit flawlessly, marking the company’s return to flight and the resumption of its space launch services for NASA and others.
But what happened next was unprecedented.
After it’s primary mission was done, the first stage of the rocket turned around, relit three of its 9 Merlin engines, and descended back to the Cape on a point of flame. There, about ten minutes after launch, it touched down on a specially prepared landing pad, and then awaited its handlers quietly puffing steam in the darkness.
Already the most cost-effective means of getting things into orbit, SpaceX has now set a new standard for space launch technology. It’s the standard to which all of its competitors will have to conform if they are to remain in business. That’s because throw-away rockets can never be as affordable as reusable ones—no more than single-use cars or airplanes could compete in the marketplace.
Yesterday’s flight differed from last month’s vertical takeoff/vertical landing by Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket in two important ways. First, SpaceX’s rocket is an orbital ship that travels much higher and much faster than Blue’s rocket. Second, the Falcon 9 is an operational vehicle serving customers for well-established markets. The New Shepard is an experimental ship going after a market, suborbital tourism, that is not yet established. To be sure, Blue plans to scale up to orbital flight, but SpaceX got there first.
We have now entered a new era in spaceflight, one that will be forever defined as “before” and “after” yesterday’s flight by SpaceX. The iPhone of rockets has launched. As an engineer pronounced on the flight loop after touchdown, in a homage to Neil Armstrong’s words after setting his lunar module down on the surface of the moon, “The Falcon has landed.”