SpaceX’s first successful landing of its Falcon 9 model back in 2014 marked the new reality for recovered rocketry, but the launch last night proves that those recovered rockets can now be re-launched back into space — marking the true beginning of the era of reusable rocketry.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has made another huge stride in space flight this week, signalling a new epoch in the commercial space industry. The Falcon 9 rocket used to lift the SES-10 communications satellite into orbit last night had already been to space and back — marking the first successful launch of a recycled Falcon 9 rocket.

“It’s been 15 years to get to this point, it’s taken us a long time,” Musk said during a press briefing after the launch. “A lot of difficult steps along the way, but I’m just incredibly proud of the SpaceX for being able to achieve this incredible milestone in the history of space.”

SES CTO Martin Halliwell described the launch as “absolutely astounding,” and said it “just opened the door into a whole new era of space flight.”

The video feed of the landing pad on SpaceX’s drone ship cut out during the Falcon 9’s landing, causing a chorus of disappointment among viewers at Mission Control. The video feed returns with the Falcon 9 safely landed.

The implications of the launch are tremendous and will serve to further drive down costs for launching things into space.

“It means you can fly and refly an orbital class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket,” Musk said during a press briefing last night. “This is going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in spaceflight.”

Most rockets are expendable and are considered lost after launch — meaning the rockets aren’t recovered or repaired. The Falcon 9 was the first rocket designed to land its 15-story first stage back on Earth in a controlled descent after separation. The Falcon 9 used last night was actually the second rocket SpaceX recovered successfully. In 2016, the vehicle was used in a cargo resupply mission (CRS-8) to the International Space Station (ISS).

The first flight proven Falcon 9 takes off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image source: SpaceX

 

Over the past two years, SpaceX has successfully landed eight Falcon 9 rockets — out of 13 attempts — and has been keeping the “flight proven” rockets in a hangar.

And in another first for space flight, SpaceX was also able to land the $6 million fairing from the launch, another point in cost-savings for future flights. The company used thrusters and a steerable parachute to land the fairing safely in the ocean. Musk described the recovery of the fairing as “the cherry on the cake” for last night’s impressive launch.

SpaceX has said it’ll offer discounts up to 30% for companies that use flight proven rockets rather than new ones. That would eventually bring the price down from $60 million to $40 million — a significant savings. SES said it did receive a discount for the SES-10 launch, but didn’t disclose how much money it paid for the launch.

The next set of goals for Musk and SpaceX is around shortening the time between launches for these reusable rockets. Each rocket that’s flight proven and recovered will need to undergo inspections, repairs and refurbishments, and a round of testing before it can be sent back up. The rocket used last night took about four months to get ready for space flight.

Musk said he’d like to reuse rockets in as little as 24 hours. For this year, though, the company plans to launch six flight proven Falcon 9 rockets.

Kendra R Chamberlain

Freelance journalist writing about environment, clean & green tech, smart infrastructure, IoT and circular economy. Co-founder and contributing editor of The Downlink.

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