Out of this world success: SpaceX sticks historic landing

Landing a booster isn't just a fancy trick for billionaire Elon Musk. This success could open up the possibility of reusing rocket parts – a process that could make spaceflight significantly more affordable. 

Mike Brown/Reuters
A long exposure photograph shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 lifting off (l.) from its launch pad and then returning to a landing zone (r.) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, on the launcher's first mission since a June failure, in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Monday. The rocket carried a payload of eleven satellites owned by ORBCOMM, a New Jersey-based communications company. This long exposure photograph was made by covering the lens in between liftoff and landing.

An unmanned rocket soared toward space Monday night, launched 11 small satellites into orbit, and then made history.

In a commercial spaceflight breakthrough, the booster for Falcon rocket landed back at Cape Canaveral, Fla., unscathed. The 15-story booster gently settled back to Earth, landing upright on the touchdown pad, just 10 minutes after launch.

"It's a revolutionary moment," Elon Musk, SpaceX's chief executive officer and chief technology officer, told reporters after the landing, according to an Associated Press report. "No one has ever brought a booster, an orbital-class booster, back intact."

"I can't quite believe it," he said. "It's quite shocking."

Landing a booster isn't just a fancy trick for billionaire Mr. Musk. This success could open up the possibility of reusing rocket parts – a process that could make spaceflight significantly more affordable. 

Another commercial spaceflight company has also successfully landed a booster. Blue Origin, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' company, landed a booster during a suborbital flight test run in November. 

But SpaceX's Falcon rocket reached higher heights than Blue Origin's November test flight. And it was not just practice.

Although the touchdown was a breakthrough for SpaceX, the mission was actually to deploy 11 satellites for ORBCOMM, a communications company. All the satellites are now successfully orbiting the planet.

Still, ORBCOMM CEO Marc Eisenberg seemed to celebrate both the launch of his satellites and the booster landing via Twitter Monday night. When the booster landed, he tweeted, "Bullseye."

The SpaceX booster settled back down to Earth on a touchdown area made of reinforced concrete, about six miles from the launch site. The stable surface was marked by a giant X.

SpaceX is leasing the landing area, a former Atlas missile-launching site, from the Air Force.

"This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can't even begin to describe the excitement the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing," the top officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith said in a statement.

He said, the landed booster "placed the exclamation mark on 2015."

It's been a rocky year for SpaceX. Earlier this year SpaceX tried to stick such a landing using a modified barge as a touchdown site, but failed at all three attempts. In June, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket took off with a supply ship headed for the International Space Station, only to explode just 139 seconds after launching from Cape Canaveral. 

But Musk, who is also CEO for the electric car company Tesla, has not taken his eyes off his ultimate goal: a human mission to Mars. And he sees Monday's success as just one piece of the puzzle.

"This was a critical step along the way to being able to establish a city on Mars," Musk said. "That's what all this is about."

When the booster settled back to Earth Monday, the billionaire tweeted: 

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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