MIAMI: SpaceX successfully landed its powerful Falcon 9 rocket Monday for the first time, a major milestone in the drive to cut costs and waste by making rockets as reusable as airplanes.
Its engines burning bright orange against the dark night sky, the Falcon 9 made a graceful arc back to Earth and touched down upright at Cape Canaveral, Florida, minutes after launching a payload of satellites to orbit, video images showed.
“The Falcon has landed,” a commentator said above the screams and cheers of people gathered at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
SpaceX, headed by Internet tycoon Elon Musk, is striving to revolutionize the rocket industry, which currently loses many millions of dollars in jettisoned machinery and sophisticated rocket components after each launch.
“I still can’t quite believe it,” Musk said in a teleconference after the landing.
“I think this is a revolutionary moment. No one has ever brought an orbital class booster back intact.”
Previous attempts to land the Falcon 9’s first stage on a floating ocean platform have failed — with the rocket either colliding with the autonomous drone ship or tipping over.
But this time, video images on SpaceX’s live webcast showed the tall, white portion of the rocket — known as the first stage — appearing to settle down firmly and stick the landing.
The rocket reached a height of 125 miles (200 kilometers) before heading back to Earth and touching down at a former US Air Force rocket and missile testing range that was last used in 1978.
Video images were cut off within seconds of the landing, and the SpaceX live webcast returned to its commentators, who described the successful deployment of the rocket’s payload of 11 satellites for ORBCOMM, a global communications company.
The US space agency NASA applauded the feat.
“Congratulations @SpaceX on your successful vertical landing of the first stage back on Earth!” NASA said in a tweet.
The stakes were high for SpaceX, which has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to supply the astronauts living at the International Space Station over numerous back-and-forth trips with its Dragon cargo ship.
Just six months ago, a devastating explosion — caused by a faulty strut — destroyed the Falcon 9 about two minutes after launch, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in cargo and equipment bound for the ISS.
The company fixed that problem and also made the newest version of the Falcon 9 about 30 percent more powerful than previous iterations, Musk said.