A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket using a previously flown first stage shot away from Cape Canaveral Wednesday afternoon — 60 years to the day after the first successful U.S. satellite launch — boosting a commercially developed military relay station into orbit for Luxembourg, its NATO allies and satellite operator SES.
It was the California rocket builder’s sixth flight featuring a “used” booster, a key element in founder Elon Musk’s drive to lower costs. It was the 48th flight of a Falcon 9 overall and the second so far this year.
The flight came three weeks after SpaceX launched a mysterious satellite known as Zuma for the U.S. government, a mission that ended in failure when the payload crashed back into the atmosphere, sources said, shortly after launch. While SpaceX has never discussed the classified satellite, company officials said the Falcon 9 performed normally.
Wednesday’s flight also appeared to go smoothly, with the 229-foot-tall rocket blasting off from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:25 p.m. EST (GMT-5). A launch try Tuesday was called off to repair a component in the rocket’s second stage, but there were no issues Wednesday and the booster quickly streaked away to the east over the Atlantic Ocean.
The flight came on the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Explorer 1 science satellite, the first successful orbital launch by the United States. The Falcon 9 was the 3,568th rocket to take off from the Air Force Eastern Range at Cape Canaveral over the past six decades.
Perched inside a protective nose cone was the GovSat 1 communications satellite, a joint venture between the government of Luxembourg and SES, a Luxembourg-based satellite operator. On hand for launch were Luxembourg’s Grand Duke Guillaume and his wife the Grand Duchess Stephanie.
The first stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines fired for two minutes and 38 seconds, boosting the rocket out of the thick lower atmosphere before shutting down. The stage then fell away and the single engine powering the Falcon 9’s second stage took over to continue the climb to space.
Because the 9,325-pound GovSat 1 was bound for an initially elliptical orbit with a high point around 36,000 miles, it was believed the first stage did not have enough left-over propellant to attempt a normal landing back at Cape Canaveral or on an off-shore droneship.
But the stage executed a test entry and descent, firing its braking rockets in a high-thrust maneuver before deploying its landing legs and settling to a “touchdown” in the ocean. Remarkably, the booster survived its watery impact. SpaceX released a photograph showing it resting on its side, apparently intact, with a landing leg extended toward the sky.
It was only the fifth time in the last 20 flights that SpaceX did not attempt a first stage recovery.
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SOURCE: CBS News, William Harwood