A SpaceX rocket soared from NASA’s long-idled moonshot pad Sunday, sending up space station supplies from the exact spot where astronauts embarked on the lunar landings nearly a half-century ago. It was the first flight from NASA’s legendary Launch Complex 39A since the shuttle program ended almost six years ago, and SpaceX’s first liftoff from Florida since a rocket explosion last summer.
Sunday’s launch was the first for SpaceX from Launch Complex 39A, originally built for the 1960s-era Apollo moon program and later repurposed for the space shuttles. The pad was last used for the final space shuttle launch in 2011. In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease to use pad and has spent millions remodeling it.
The Cargo Mission & Landing
- The rocket took flight with a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station. The 229-foot tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 soared off a seaside launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center at 9:39 am, ET (1439 GMT) carrying a Dragon cargo ship bound for the station.
- The Dragon cargo ship successfully reached orbit a few minutes later. It will reach the space station Wednesday, delivering 5,500 pounds of food, clothes and experiments. It was SpaceX’s second launch attempt in a row. Saturday’s effort was foiled by last-minute rocket concerns. The repairs paid off, and even the clouds parted enough to ensure a safe flight.
- Nine minutes after blastoff, the main section of the rocket flew back to a landing pad at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the eighth successful touchdown for Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
- Most of the company’s booster landings – rocket recycling at its finest – have used ocean platforms. As they did during the shuttle era, sonic booms heralded the booster’s return.
SpaceX Future Plans
- The company hopes to launch astronauts from NASA’s Launch Complex 39A next year, bringing U.S. crew launches back to home soil after a longer-than-intended hiatus. SpaceX Mars missions, first robots then people, could follow from here.
- The company plans to reuse the rockets, slashing costs and allowing it to offer reduced pricing.
- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which hired SpaceX to fly cargo to the station after the shuttle program ended, closely monitored the launch to learn more about the company’s operations before it clears the company to fly NASA astronauts on SpaceX rockets.
- SpaceX and Boeing Co are scheduled to begin flying crew to the station by the end of 2018. A Government Accountability Office report last week said both companies face technical hurdles that likely will delay their programs.
- The last time SpaceX had a rocket ready to fly from Florida, it blew up on a neighboring Cape Canaveral pad during prelaunch testing on Sept. 1.
- Although the company successfully returned to flight last month from California, the focus was on getting leased Launch Complex 39A ready for action given that the pad with the accident was left unusable.
- NASA signed over 39A to SpaceX in 2014 under a 20-year lease. Last week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned the commercial crew launches by SpaceX and Boeing are at risk of slipping into 2019. “The hell we won’t fly before 2019,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told reporters in response.
- SpaceX has spent tens of millions of dollars to make 39A Falcon-ready. By the time astronauts climb into a Dragon capsule for liftoff, Shotwell said, pad renovations will exceed $100 million.
- Last month, SpaceX resumed flying its Falcon 9 rockets using a second launch pad in California, where the first stage of the rocket also nailed its re-landing.
- SpaceX aims to have the Florida launchpad damaged in last year’s explosion up and running by this summer.