SpaceX Falcon Rocket Flies Itself Back to Earth

For the first time, a Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 rocket successfully flew itself back to Earth for an experimental touchdown at sea, company chief executive Elon Musk told reporters Friday.

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“I’m happy to confirm that we were able to do a soft-landing of the Falcon 9 boost stage in the Atlantic,” following launch a week ago from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Musk said.

“All the data that we received back shows that we did the soft landing and it was in a healthy condition after that,” Musk said.

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The rocket, which launched a Dragon cargo ship toward the International Space Station, subsequently fell victim to unexpectedly rough seas.

“It was like 15- to 20-foot seas, so we suspect the stage was destroyed,” Musk said.

Recovery ships dispatched to hunt for the booster retrieved only the carbon-fiber segment that joins the first and second stages and “a bunch of other little bits and pieces,” Musk said.

Nevertheless, the soft-landing is “a really huge milestone for SpaceX and certainly for the space launch industry,” he added.

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SpaceX, which already offers launch services for far less than other firms, is working to recover, refurbish and refly its rockets, a potential game-changer in the cost of getting to space.

“The cost of propellant is actually only about 0.3 percent of the cost of mission, so for a $60 million mission (the current commercial price of a Falcon 9 rocket launch) the cost of propellant is only $200,000, Musk said.

“There’s potential there for ultimately 100-fold improvement in the cost of access to space,” he said.

SpaceX plans to retry the water landing next month when a Falcon 9 launches a network of commercial communication satellites for Orbcomm.

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Once the rocket can make pinpoint touchdown in the water, the company intends to attempt to fly the booster back to land.

“We’ll do water landings until we’re confident we can land with accuracy,” Musk said.

SpaceX also announced that it was filing a lawsuit to protest the U.S. Air Force’s award of 36 rocket launches to United Launch Alliance, under a contract that was not open to competition.

SpaceX, which already is flying cargo to the space station for NASA and launching commercial communications satellites, is hoping to break the multi-billion monopoly United Launch Alliance has on flying the U.S. military’s most expensive satellites.

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