Article by James Dean
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Following trails blazed by Saturn V rockets and space shuttles, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Sunday morning from a storied Kennedy Space Center launch pad on a mission to resupply the International Space Station.
The 210-foot rocket carrying a Dragon cargo craft quickly disappeared into clouds after a thundering 9:39 a.m. liftoff from KSC’s pad 39A, where Apollo astronauts launched to the moon and shuttle astronauts last set sail nearly six years ago.
Eight minutes later the rocket’s first stage did something the historic missions never contemplated, flipping around above the atmosphere and flying back to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a landing that unleashed a powerful sonic boom across the area.
“Baby came back,” CEO Elon Musk posted on Instagram. Soon after the experimental landing, the unmanned Dragon carrying nearly 5,500 pounds of food, equipment and science research floated away from the rocket’s upper stage in what SpaceX said was a perfect orbit.
The Dragon is expected to arrive at the ISS early Wednesday morning, where European astronaut Thomas Pesquet will use a 58-foot robotic arm to snare the spacecraft and reel it into a docking port. The Dragon’s departure concluded a successful first launch of a non-NASA rocket from KSC, the first launch the space center has hosted since the shuttle Atlantis flew in 2011. “It was really awesome to see 39A roar back to life for the first time since the shuttle era,” said Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX. “This is a huge deal for us.”
It was also a boost for roughly 8,000 KSC employees eager to show how the space center has evolved into more than just a NASA spaceport.
“We flew the last shuttle mission in July of 2011, and folks were kind of depressed at the end of that,” said KSC Director Bob Cabana. “But now we have this exciting future in front of us. We have established ourselves as a multi-user spaceport.”
NASA is preparing to launch its Saturn V-like Space Launch System rocket and an Orion crew capsule from pad 39B to the north in late 2018.
SpaceX and Boeing both plan to launch astronauts to the space station next year from KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX has a long-term goal to colonize Mars. Sunday’s launch was SpaceX’s second successful mission and first from Florida since a Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a test last Sept. 1 at nearby Launch Complex 40.
SpaceX hopes to repair that pad by this summer, enabling more frequent launches. A Falcon 9 could return to KSC’s pad 39A in as little as two weeks for the launch of a commercial communications satellite, as SpaceX tries to chip away at a backlog of missions delayed by the explosion. The company’s heavy-lift Falcon Heavy, which features three Falcon boosters, could make its debut this summer from the same pad as the world’s new most powerful rocket.
Sunday’s dramatic rocket landing was the third at the Cape and first attempted in daylight, but clouds obscured the view for crowds gathered at KSC and on local beaches.
If they could not see the booster descend, many heard the “thunder-like” sonic boom as it touched down, which SpaceX had warned about in an effort to minimize any emergency calls from startled residents. The company has landed a total of eight boosters on land or at sea, all with the goal of making rockets reusable to reduce the cost of getting to space.
A major milestone in that effort could arrive next month, when SpaceX aims to re-fly a used booster for the first time to launch a commercial satellite.
Except for one booster set aside exclusively for tests, Jensen said the stages recovered so far “are looking good and are potential candidates for re-flight.”
“As we move forward, we expect to be able to re-fly more of them,” she said.