SpaceX rocket makes history by making a perfect landing on robot ship
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was blasted from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Friday afternoon, along with a resupply capsule bearing a new inflatable habitat to the International Space Station (ISS). The rocket’s “first stage” successfully returned to Earth for a sea landing without exploding.
While four previous at-sea landing bids had failed, however, a Falcon 9 achieved a successful ground-based touchdown in December, the first ever during an actual commercial space mission. Friday’s feat marked yet another major milestone in the quest for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and his privately owned Space Exploration Technologies in the quest to develop a cheap, reusable rocket, expanding his edge in the burgeoning commercial space launch industry.
The lift-off at 4:43 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral marked the resumption of resupply flights by Space Exploration Technologies for NASA following a launch accident in June 2015 that destroyed a different cargo payload for the space station.
About 2 and a half minutes after Friday’s launch, the main part of the two-stage SpaceX rocket separated, turned around and headed toward a landing platform floating in the Atlantic about 185 miles of Cape Canaveral.
A live video feed broadcast on NASA television showed the rocket booster, its four landing legs extended, plunging over the ocean before settling itself upright on the platform, roughly eight minutes after launch.
At a press conference held with NASA after lift-off to speak about the launch and the landing of the rocket at sea, Musk joked, “What was different about this [landing] is that the rocket landed instead of putting a hole in the ship or tipping over.”
As humans venture farther into space, there will be benefits to landing a rocket in the water versus landing one on Earth.
“For half our missions, we will need to land out to sea. Anything beyond Earth is likely to need to land on the ship,” Musk said, pointed to the potential of future space habitats extending beyond Earth’s orbit. Currently, ISS lies in lower Earth orbit.
For some time now, SpaceX and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin have been trying to master rocket landings. SpaceX’s landing could lead to prospects for the company to reuse rockets for future launches, possibly saving the company’s money and time.
“Reusability is important. It will take us a few years to make that efficient,” Musk said. The billionaire businessman hopes that launches will be as frequent as every few weeks in the future.
“We will be successful when this become boring,” Musk said.
There was excitement all around with the SpaceX crew in Mission Control, Musk said.
President Obama hailed the latest accomplishment and congratulated Musk and NASA for their hard work and innovation on Twitter, by saying, “Congrats SpaceX on landing a rocket at sea. It’s because of innovators like you & NASA that America continues to lead in space exploration.”
There are a few upcoming projects that Musk is excited to see, such as recovering the Falcon 9’s payload fairing, a structure that protects satellites when they are launched into orbit.
Musk explained that Friday’s ocean landing is one of many big moments to come.
“This is really good milestone for spaceflight another step towards the stars,” he said.
According to NASA, the rocket’s cargo ship, dubbed Dragon, is due to arrive back in Florida on Sunday at the ISS, the $100 billion laboratory flying about 250 miles above Earth. It will be test-fired about 10 times, then likely re-launched, probably on a commercial flight, as early as May, Musk said.
The Dragon spacecraft is packed with about 7,000 pounds of food, supplies and science experiments, including a prototype inflatable habitat, bound for the orbital outpost.
The author Kavita Iyer
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