SpaceX did it.
For the first time in its history, the Elon Musk-founded spaceflight company has relaunched a previously flown Falcon 9 booster.
Oh, and they landed it back on Earth again.
This rocket, which flew a payload to orbit in April 2016 for its first flight, launched at 6:27 p.m. ET, coming back in for its second landing on a drone ship in the ocean about 8.5 minutes later. This was the ninth successful rocket landing for SpaceX.
“We just had an incredible day today,” Musk said during a live broadcast of the launch. “The first reflight of an orbital class booster did its mission perfectly, dropped off the second stage, came back and landed on the drone ship, right in the bullseye. It is an amazing day I think for space as a whole for the space industry. It means you can fly and refly an orbit-class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket.”
And just to put the cherry on top of the rocket sundae, SpaceX also managed to recover the fairing housing the satellite after it was successfully deployed.
This launch and landing marks a huge moment for SpaceX’s business model and the private spaceflight industry as a whole.
All of the company’s plans for the future — including its big ambitions to fly humans to Mars one day — depend on driving down the cost of spaceflight by reusing rocket boosters for multiple launches.
“If they’re successful, it proves that they are able to reuse a rocket which is going to significantly lower their cost, which will allow them to be even more competitive than they are now,” Bill Ostrove, an aerospace and defense industry analyst at Forecast International, said in an interview before launch.
Falcon 9 first stage has landed on Of Course I Still Love You — world’s first reflight of an orbital class rocket.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 30, 2017
Traditionally, rocket bodies are discarded after one use, but SpaceX has figured out a way to bring them back to Earth and refurbish them to fly multiple missions.
By flying these rockets multiple times — and eventually only paying to refuel the boosters — Musk thinks his company can greatly drive down the cost of launching payloads and one day people to orbit.
A Falcon 9 rocket costs about $62 million total, but fuel is just a relatively small portion of that.
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Musk has said. “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
In the time since this rocket’s first flight in April 2016, SpaceX has refurbished and tested the booster, making sure that it was okay to fly another mission.
This nearly year-long turnaround time isn’t ideal. Eventually, SpaceX wants to figure out a quick way of turning boosters around and flying them again without much time sitting on the ground.
Other companies are also aiming for reusability. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has landed its suborbital New Shepard rocket five times after five launches, and it plans to make its not-yet-built heavy lift rockets reusable in the future as well.
UPDATE: March 30, 2017, 7:58 p.m. EDT This story was updated to include information about the payload fairing and its successful recovery.