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SpaceX Will Try Its Next Rocket Landing on Solid Ground

December 3, 2015, 12:43 AM UTC
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches at Cape Canaveral
Space X's Falcon 9 rocket as it lifts off from space launch complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida June 28, 2015 with a Dragon CRS7 spacecraft. The unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, following what was meant to be a routine cargo mission to the International Space Station. "The vehicle has broken up," said NASA commentator George Diller, after NASA television broadcast images of the white rocket falling to pieces. "At this point it is not clear to the launch team exactly what happened." The disaster was the first of its kind for the California-based company headed by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has led a series of successful launches even as competitor Orbital Sciences lost one of its rockets in an explosion in October, and a Russian supply ships was lost in April. SpaceX's live webcast of the launch went silent about two minutes 19 seconds into the flight, and soon after the rocket could be seen exploding and small pieces tumbling back toward Earth. AFP PHOTO/ BRUCE WEAVER (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Bruce Weaver — Getty Images

After SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket returns to flight later this month, the company will try to land the first stage booster back on solid ground, according to NASA officials. If successful, it would mark not only the first successful landing and recovery of the company’s flagship rocket, but also the first terrestrial rocket landing for SpaceX after two failed landing attempts at sea.

The launch—which could come as soon as December 15, though a flight plan has not been confirmed by the U.S. Air Force—marks a big next step for SpaceX. The mission will be the company’s first since a June launch in which an unmanned Falcon 9 bound for the International Space Station broke apart mid-flight. The landing attempt will also follow the successful launch and landing of a reusable rocket by rival spaceflight company Blue Origin last week.

NASA officials confirmed the terrestrial landing attempt during a press conference Tuesday to update media on upgrades to Kennedy Space Center’s historic launchpad 39A. The site is being refitted to accommodate SpaceX’s much larger Falcon Heavy rocket when it begins launching sometime next year.

“Their plan is to try to land [the rocket stage] out here on the Cape side,” Carol Scott, a technical integrator for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told reporters after reportedly discussing the plan with a SpaceX executive.

Doing so successfully would mark the first concrete step toward using reusable rockets for commercial space launches. Conventional rocket bodies are built for one-time use. As a rocket climbs through the atmosphere, its spent rocket stages are jettisoned and destroyed as they either burn up in the atmosphere or fall back to Earth. Building a whole new rocket from scratch for each trip to orbit makes commercial space launch extremely expensive, and several commercial space companies have been experimenting with landing, recovering, and reusing their rockets’ cost-intensive first stages, where the bulk of its engines and fuel are housed.

Previously, SpaceX has twice tried to land and recover the first stage of its 14-story Falcon 9 rocket. Using a series of retro-rockets and thrusters, SpaceX mission handlers attempted to guide the rocket to a soft landing on a floating platform in the ocean. On those attempts, the rocket either came in too fast or couldn’t remain upright, resulting in the destruction of the rockets. The launch failure in June then grounded SpaceX’s fleet temporarily, halting its attempts at landing its reusable rocket bodies.

That makes SpaceX’s return to flight this month all the more significant. A second launch failure in a row could deal a serious blow to customer confidence in SpaceX’s rockets. On the other hand, a successful launch followed by a successful landing of the rocket’s first stage would mark a huge leap forward for the company and for commercial space in general—one that could drastically trim the $70 million to $80 million cost of launching a Falcon 9.

SpaceX has leased the former Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral from the Air Force to land its reusable rocket stages there, renaming it “Landing Complex 1.” If it can stick the landing later this month, the company can also regain the initiative in the race to bring the first functioning reusable commercial rocket to market—a race it appeared to be winning until last week’s successful Blue Origin launch.

Although Blue Origin demonstrated a successful landing first, its suborbital rockets are much smaller and ostensibly easier to land than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and upcoming Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. It’s a point Elon Musk was quick to make when congratulating the Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin last week.

In related commercial space news, Orbital-ATK could return its robotic Cygnus spacecraft to orbit this week as well, marking its first launch since an explosion shortly after liftoff scuttled its last mission to resupply the International Space Station more than a year ago. That launch—again bound for the International Space Station—is slated for Thursday, weather permitting.