SpaceX reliably launches, recovers another Falcon 9

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Courtesy of SpaceX via Flickr
Courtesy of SpaceX via Flickr

After electing to abort a scheduled launch on Saturday, SpaceX had a successful launch and landing of its Falcon 9 rocket Sunday morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter that he personally made the decision not to launch on Saturday after engineers noticed an unexpected reading on the position of a hydraulic piston toward the top of the craft.

He stressed the importance of patience in the inspection of the rocket, especially after a situation last September in which a Falcon 9 failed and exploded, destroying the Facebook-funded satellite being brought into orbit. This was SpaceX’s second flight since the failure in September, with the first having taken place on Jan. 14. That particular flight was also delayed, though due to weather issues and launch site conflicts as opposed to possible mechanical problems.

Musk indicated that caution during launches is likely to be higher than it was before September. “If this is the only issue, flight would be fine,” he tweeted, “but need to make sure that it isn’t symptomatic of a more significant upstream root cause.” After a day-long delay, the Falcon 9 launched at 9:39 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

The launch site at the Kennedy Space Center had been held for SpaceX, so the launch team avoided the misfortune of having to wait for the launchpad to again be available as they did in January. The launch was only visible for a few seconds before disappearing into the low-laying clouds. Nine minutes later, the rocket booster, which mostly carries and burns fuel for the initial stage of takeoff, returned to Cape Canaveral for a landing.

One particular goal of SpaceX as it expands in space exploration is the reusability of its rockets. Since the inception of spaceflight, rocket boosters have been disposed of into the ocean after a single use. SpaceX, along with the Jeff Bezos-funded Blue Origin, is one of the first spaceflight organizations to attempt to recover a rocket booster.

This was the third ever attempt to recover the booster on a ground-based landing pad, with the first having occurred in December 2015. Most landings have so far been attempted on ships over water, and not all have been successful. However, all ground pad landings have resulted in recovery of the rocket booster. The delay in the launch of the rocket made news on Saturday as it harkened back to the failed launch just a few short months before. Many doubted that any private company, even one considered as revolutionary as SpaceX, could recover from a legitimate disaster so quickly.

The failure was highlighted by the high-profile cargo being carried by the rocket: a satellite intended to bring internet to parts of Africa, in part a project of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. The launch being called off a mere 13 second before launch also made the decision noteworthy, as most calls for delays are done in more preliminary tests or determined due to the weather during the morning of or few days before the launch. Failure was always considered unlikely.

But, as Elon Musk points out in a tweet when discussing the risk of losing another rocket: “that 1 percent chance isn’t worth rolling the dice. Better to wait a day.” Sunday’s rocket was an important mission for the International Space Station, as SpaceX was supplying the ISS with over 5,500 pounds of food, scientific equipment and other necessities for the crew on board. SpaceX has one more launch planned for this month, on Feb. 28.

However, given the recent pattern of SpaceX flights, it seems plenty likely that this launch could end up taking place in March. This launch is noteworthy in the fact that it will be SpaceX’s first launch in 14 attempts, since April 2015, to not attempt to recover the initial stage of the rocket. SpaceX currently plans to launch one to two rockets per month for the remainder of the year, eventually hitting one per week within the next two years.

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