Think of it as the difference between continually buying stacks of batteries versus investing in a set of rechargeables.
SpaceX's orbital-class Falcon 9 blasted off, then returned to Earth on Monday evening, signaling a new era in which reusable rockets could make sending probes and people into space a bit more affordable.
“Welcome back, baby!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted after the touchdown.
It’s a feat that was like “launching a pencil over the Empire State building, having it reverse, come back down, and land on a shoebox on the ground—in a windstorm,” Tim Urban said during a live telecast of the launch and landing, which took place six miles from one another near Cape Canaveral, Fla.
SpaceX had tried at least twice before, and now finally succeeded in bringing a section of the 23-story tall Falcon 9 rocket back to the landing pad.
The accomplishment could signal an era where spaceflight might be just a smidge more affordable. Normally, expensive rockets are discarded or destroyed during re-entry, meaning the same parts need to be built from scratch for each launch. Reusable rockets could save companies hundreds of millions of dollars in launch costs.
At 8:29 EST, the Falcon 9 lifted off the launch pad, carrying 11 small satellites for ORBCOMM, a communications company based in New Jersey. It zoomed up to about 125 miles above Earth, and then the first stage of the rocket—the part that does all the heavy lifting and propulsion—turned around and headed home. As it approached the landing pad, the 15-story-tall rocket fired its engines, deployed its landing legs and touched down in an orange blaze of smoky glory, just ten minutes after it had left Earth.
The landing is a much-needed success for SpaceX, whose last attempt to launch a Falcon 9 to the International Space Station ended just seconds after lift-off off, as the rocket disintegrated. The previous two times the private spaceflight company tried to return a rocket to Earth didn’t go so well either—the Falcon 9’s first stage either crashed or tipped over while attempting to land on a barge at sea.
But despite the fervor over the accomplishment, it isn’t actually the first time an uncrewed rocket has landed vertically on Earth. That happened last month, when Blue Origin—a spaceflight company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos—set down its much-smaller New Shepard rocket in Texas. Bezos, perhaps inclined to remind Musk that he got there first, responded on Twitter to the SpaceX landing with this tiny bit of side-eye:
”Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon's suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!”