On Thursday, SpaceX will attempt something it has never tried before.
The Elon Musk-founded private spaceflight company will try to relaunch (and hopefully re-land) a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket booster on its second mission to deliver a satellite to orbit.
SpaceX has been working toward this moment ever since it was founded 15 years ago, and this launch will mark a huge test of its business plan, which specifically aims for reusability in order to reduce the cost of launching payloads to space.
“This launch is really what we need to see more of in order to bend the cost curve of getting hardware out of Earth’s gravity well, and indeed signals a bolder, brighter future in space for all of us,” Phil Larson, a former communications employee at SpaceX who is now an assistant dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said via email.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 being used for this launch is the same booster that came back to Earth to land on a drone ship in the ocean in April 2016.
In the time since that launch and landing, SpaceX has refurbished the rocket stage, testing it out and getting it ready to fly again.
The rocket stage will help deliver a communications satellite to orbit before turning around and attempting another landing on a drone ship, possibly setting the stage for yet another reusable rocket launch in the future.
SpaceX plans to light the reusable candle at 6:27 p.m. ET, with the booster hopefully coming back in for a landing about 8.5 minutes later. You can watch the launch and landing in the window below:
Musk and SpaceX see reusable rockets as the way of the future for the space industry.
At the moment, traditional launch providers have a more “one and done” approach to rockets that involves using a different, expensive booster for every mission and effectively discarding that hardware after it has served its purpose in space.
SpaceX — and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin — advocate bringing those rocket stages back in order to use them for multiple missions.
Eventually, SpaceX plans to have a very fast turnaround on any refurbishment of a rocket stage, effectively only needing to refuel it before launching again.
But for now, the company is anxiously awaiting the chance to break through another barrier, after spending about a year with this booster back on terra firma.
“All launch days were exciting, but the potential to make a giant leap in access to space with the first-ever reuse of a booster’s first stage — I’m sure there’s an added buzz around the factory, for good reason,” Larson said.