SpaceX lands a rocket upright after orbital flight

SpaceX, which plans to compete to handle launches of U.S. military satellites, on Monday reached a significant milestone, launching one of its Falcon 9 rockets into space and then successfully landing the rocket’s lower stage back on Earth.

It was the first successful landing of a rocket used in an orbital flight, following a couple failed attempts earlier this year to land a Falcon 9 on an ocean barge, as well as the June 28 explosion shortly after liftoff of a Falcon 9 that was to take supplies to the International Space Station for NASA.

On Monday, the rocket’s upper stage delivered 11 satellites into space for the communications company Orbcomm, while the lower, first stage returned and landed vertically, with its nine engines intact. The company said it plans to reuse the first stage in another flight, something that, if successful, would be a major step toward reducing the costs of launches.

The Air Force for years has been looking for ways to cut the costs of its satellite launches. SpaceX, which gained certification earlier this year to compete for future launches under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Vehicle Launch program, has contended that it can launch satellite for less that United Launch Alliance, which currently has an $11 billion sole-source EELV contract.

While cost is a factor, it remains to be seen what impact the Falcon 9 explosion in June, which followed 18 consecutive successful missions for SpaceX, will affect the Air Force’s assessment when the time comes to compete for a new EELV contract. That failure reportedly was caused by a failed metal strut that leaked helium and ultimately caused the explosion. (ULA has not had any failures with its Atlas V or IV rockets.)

The United States also is looking to replace the Russian-made RD-180 engine ULA uses in launches of its Atlas V rockets. Among those working on developing a new engines are a team of ULA and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, ATK Aerospace Group and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Blue Origin also is working on reusable rocket stages, and in November reported the successful landing of one of its New Shepard rockets, although that was a suborbital flight with different requirements than an orbital flight.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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