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Image | SpaceX

Short Bytes: Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX has finally done it. After several unsuccessful attempts, SpaceX launched a payload to space and landed the Falcon 9 rocket back. “I wasn’t at all confident that we would succeed, but I’m really glad of it,” Musk said after the launch.

On Monday night, it happened, Space X successfully launched Falcon 9 rocket into space. At the first stage, its Falcon 9 rocket zoomed into space, got separated in the second stage, and then made a guided flight back to a landing site in Florida. The historic flight marked the inception of the orbital economy by a promising low launching cost.

SpaceX had twice tried to land on an autonomous drone ship previously as well. The first time while landing the rocket hit too hard on the landing point and exploded after a head-on collision impact. The second attempt was also slightly too hard on landing thus, breaking two of its legs and toppling over. However, the third attempt, at a newly landing site less than a mile from SpaceX’s premises in Florida, looked almost too easy on terra firma.

“I wasn’t at all confident that we would succeed, but I’m really glad of it,” Musk said in a teleconference Monday night, in response to a question from Ars. “It’s been 13 years since SpaceX was started. We’ve had a lot of close calls. I think people here are overjoyed.”

A webcast of the landing attempt, made several hours after sunset, showed a brilliant flash of light falling out of the sky and then, as the smoke cleared, a rocket stood on the ground. Just minutes earlier, the Falcon 9’s first stage had rocketed nearly 200 km into space far off the Florida coast, used nitrogen attitude thrusters to make an abrupt U-turn, fired its engines to create a reversed ballistic arc, and finally reoriented itself for re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere with the engines pointed toward the ground for a final landing burn.

As employees of SpaceX watched from the Space X’s Hawthorne, California-based headquarters they shouted cheerfully and then broke into chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A!” The company is one of two US firms building space crafts to end NASA’s dependence upon Russia for transportation of the payload to the ISS. However, SpaceX is unique as neither its rocket nor spacecraft rely on Russian suppliers.

The launch was closely watched by many for several reasons. It marked a successful return to flight for SpaceX after an accident in June with its Falcon 9 rocket. The company also launched 11 ORBCOMM communications satellites far above Earth. And, it flew an upgraded variant of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Nevertheless, the successful return of the Falcon 9 booster to Florida clearly highlighted Monday night.

In some ways, the mission marks the inception of a new space age. It begins to deliver on the promise of reusable launch vehicles, which is critical to increasing access to space. SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, has said it costs about $60 million to build a Falcon 9 rocket. The propellant itself only costs $200,000. Thus there is the potential to slash the costs of spaceflight by 10, or even 100 times.

Now the company will have to demonstrate it can rework on the rocket stage with relatively little work, and then it must relaunch into space. With the space shuttle NASA had a largely reusable vehicle, but it required a huge standing army of employees to turn around. SpaceX must show it can do this more efficiently, and then do it consistently. With Monday night’s successful flyback, however, it arguably took the most difficult step.

“It makes you rethink the way we do business,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an advocate of commercial human spaceflight. “That’s the bottom line. Is there a better way to do spaceflight? It used to be if, or when, we could reuse rockets. But now we’ve crossed off the ‘if,’ and then ‘when.’ It changes the way the industry is going to do business.”

Musk has been at the vanguard of companies seeking to push the boundaries of reusability even as NASA has moved in the opposite direction with its new rocket, the Space Launch System. That rocket is entirely expendable, including its four RS-25 engines. Those same engines were reused after each space shuttle flight.

In founding SpaceX, Musk has made it clear that his ultimate goal is to establish a human colony on Mars, thus ensuring the survival of the human race if there is some kind of extinction event on Earth. “This is a critical step along the way toward being able to establish a city on Mars,” he said Monday night. Reusability is vital to making a Mars colony happen, Musk said, because with only expendable rockets any kind of Mars development would prove prohibitively expensive. “That’s what this was all about,” he said.

SpaceX’s achievement follows the successful landing of Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft and propulsion module after it flew into suborbital space in November. “Welcome to the club,” tweeted Blue Origin’s founder, Jeff Bezos, shortly after SpaceX’s flight.

However, it is worth noticing that on Monday night the Falcon 9 rocket descended from about twice the altitude as the New Shepherd vehicle, and at about twice the speed, approximately Mach 7.5. It did not simply drop back to Earth from a vertical launch, rather, the Falcon 9 flew hundreds of km away from the coast before turning around and flying back and landing back perfectly at the launchpad. By doing so, it became the first orbital rocket ever to achieve such a feat, and presumably the first of many.

Have something to add about this historic SpaceX launch? Do tell us in the comments.

Also Read: Why Did SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Explode? Caused By A ‘Faulty Strut’