A SpaceX upgraded Falcon 9 rocket lifted off Dec. 21 and placed 11 Orbcomm satellites in orbit, while the first stage successfully landed back near the launch site at Cape Canaveral.
The upgraded Falcon 9 lifted off at 8:29 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Deployment of the 11 Orbcomm satellites started about 14 minutes after liftoff.
“The Falcon has landed,” the SpaceX launch director said as video showed the first stage standing on the pad after landing.
“It’s been a very celebratory atmosphere here at SpaceX. I think people are really overjoyed,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a brief media teleconference about an hour after the launch.
The launch and landing are important milestones for SpaceX. This launch was the first for Falcon 9 since June, when a cargo mission to the ISS failed. It's also the first launch for an ungraded version of the Falcon 9, which has increased thrust, an improved stage separation system and a stretched upper stage that can hold an additional propellant.
This is also the first time that SpaceX has successfully landed the rocket's first stage. Previous attempts on launches in January and April to land the first stage on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean failed, with the stages either crashing into the deck of the ship or toppling over upon landing.
The successful landing, and earlier attempts, are part of a larger effort by SpaceX to make the Falcon 9 at least partially reusable. “With reusable rockets, we can reduce the cost of access to space by probably two orders of magnitude,” or a factor of 100, Musk said in a Dec. 15 speech at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
The launch was originally scheduled for Dec. 19, but delayed to Dec. 20 after a static fire test on the pad, originally scheduled for Dec. 16, was postponed until Dec. 18. SpaceX then postponed a launch attempt Dec. 20 several hours before the scheduled launch.
The successful launch and landing have not gone unnoticed by industry and government officials. “Today clearly placed the exclamation mark on 2015, by closing out another successful year for the Eastern Range in historic fashion,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing that operates the overall Cape Canaveral launch complex, in a Dec. 21 statement.
“This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can’t even begin to describe the excitement the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing,” Monteith added.
“Through a year of hard lessons learned, SpaceX’s December return to flight and successful planned landing of its first stage, just six months after the June mishap, reminds us of this industry’s best qualities: agility, innovation and perseverance,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a Dec. 21 statement.