For first time, SpaceX launches rocket a second time

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Launch company SpaceX once again scored another private rocket science ‘first’ – blasting a satellite into space using a booster that’s already been flown, then landing the rocket on a robotic ship at sea.

Thursday evening’s brilliant launch from Cape Canaveral was actually the second flight for this particular Falcon 9 rocket.  Nearly one year ago, it sent an unmanned cargo capsule on its way to the space station before making the first-ever barge landing out in the Atlantic.

Now, it's once again sitting on a barge in the Atlantic, waiting, potentially, for another flight.

"This is a huge day," SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said after the launch. "My mind is blown, frankly. I was really quite speechless after it all happened."

Normally, the first stage of a rocket – the majority of the vehicle, in fact – is allowed to fall into the ocean, expensive engines and all.  But SpaceX has spent the last few years perfecting the automated landing of its rockets, both on the barges and on land at the Cape.  As the first stage swoops back down from space, spidery landing legs deploy just a few heart-stopping seconds before touchdown.

It’s a dramatic, almost alien scene, especially when punctuated by startling sonic booms. But SpaceX hopes it becomes the norm for its missions.  Company founder Elon Musk is counting on reusability to drive down the sky-high costs of launching payloads into space. 

SpaceX already has a contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the space station, and they hope to begin taxiing astronauts there soon.  Musk has also announced elaborate plans to send capsules to Mars, and recently unveiled a plan to give two as-yet-unnamed tourists a breathtaking trip around the moon.

To do all of that, Musk says launch costs must come way down and booster reusability is the largest part of that plan. It took four months to get this booster ready to fly again; he says he thinks it can be cut down to a day or even an hour -- just refuel and go, like an airplane.

And, he added, each booster should be able to re-fly 10 times with minimal maintenance, and perhaps 100 times with refurbishment.

"We were thinking 1,000, but there's probably not much point," Musk offered.

Also for the first time on this flight, the company planned to recover the launch fairing, which is the aerodynamic shell that covers the satellite during the first few minutes of launch. Those, too, are normally scrapped -- at a cost of $6-million.

"Imagine you had $6-million in cash in a pallet flying through the air and it's going to smash into the ocean.  Would you try to recover that? Yes you would," Musk chuckled.

The satellite underneath the fairing for this launch belonged to SES, a European communications company who has been supportive of SpaceX’s efforts. This was their third satellite launched aboard a Falcon 9 and, according to SES's chief technical officer, it couldn't have gone better.

"We are hugely excited by this," Martin Halliwell said. "I think we made a bit of history today, opened a door into a whole new era of spaceflight. And to be a part of that, I feel really really privileged."

With several other "flight-proven" -- don't call them "used," Musk joked -- boosters in hangars at the Cape, Musk says the one from today's flight will be retired and offered for display somewhere at Cape Canaveral.

"It has some historical significance so we thought having it remain at the Cape would be good," he explained.  "Future ones, well, they'll probably remain at the Cape, too.  They'll just keep flying."