Space Exploration Technologies Co., the California rocket-maker headed by billionaire Elon Musk, returned its Falcon 9 rocket to flight more than four months after one of its boosters exploded on a launch pad.
The SpaceX rocket successfully lifted off Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and carried 10 Iridium NEXT Communications satellites into space before its first stage returned to Earth and stuck a landing on a barge floating in the Pacific Ocean south of the military base.
“Mission looks good. Started deploying the 10 Iridium satellites. Rocket is stable on the droneship,” Musk tweeted. “All satellites deployed.”
The mission marked a welcome return to flight for the company after the same type of rocket exploded Sept. 1 while fueling on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The fireball destroyed the not only the rocket, but also the Amos-6 commercial satellite, and significantly damaged the pad.
Investigators said the accident occurred because of a hardware failure — “one of three composite overwrapped pressure vessels, or COPVs, inside the second stage liquid oxygen tank failed.” SpaceX has said it’s considering making long-term design changes to the COPVs to prevent buckles in the liners.
Last year, the Air Force awarded SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, its first substantial military contract in a deal valued at $83 million to launch a GPS satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in May 2018.
While the company has existing agreements with NASA to resupply the International Space Station and develop a manned capsule to launch astronauts, it also wants to compete against United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., for a larger slice of the defense launch business.
SpaceX is working to develop reusable rockets to reduce launch costs. The idea is to recover rather than discard into the ocean the first stage and its engines — the most expensive part of a rocket.
The company prices a “reusable” Falcon 9 mission at between between $42 million and $61 million each. By comparison, ULA’s Delta Heavy rocket used by the Air Force runs roughly $375 million per mission, though that price tag includes a variety of mission assurance initiatives to guarantee there won’t be a launch failure.
Check out video of the launch below. The liftoff occurs around the 29-minute mark and the first stage’s reentry for landing around the 34-minute mark.
— Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.