This morning, SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket on solid ground again, after launching the vehicle from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The vehicle’s first stage — the 14-story core of the rocket that contains the main engines — touched down at the company’s landing pad called Landing Zone 1, located just off the coast of the Cape. It’s the fourth time SpaceX has landed one of its rockets on land, and the 10th time the company has successfully recovered a rocket post-launch.
Today’s rocket took off at 7:15AM ET, lofting a secret spy satellite dubbed NROL-76 for the National Reconnaissance Office. It’s the first mission that SpaceX has done for the US military, after receiving certification to launch satellites for the Air Force in 2015. Since this was a national security launch, not much is known about the purpose of today’s mission, or the satellite’s intended orbit.
Additionally, the live broadcast of today’s launch was a bit different than SpaceX’s commercial missions. The live stream only showed viewers shots of the rocket’s initial descent, and didn’t reveal many views of the rocket as it ventured deeper into space. Instead, the audience was treated to multiple views of the Falcon 9 first stage as it made its descent back to Earth. In fact, there was a nearly continuous shot of the falling rocket taken from the ground — an angle of the landing we’ve never quite seen captured in the online broadcast before.
SpaceX used a brand-new Falcon 9 for today’s launch, but just last month the company finally demonstrated that it was capable of reflying rockets that have flown to space before. The company launched a satellite for Luxembourg-based operator SES, using a Falcon 9 first stage that had launched and landed in April 2016. That first stage also landed after take off, though it touched down on one of SpaceX’s floating drone ships in the Atlantic.
It’s not clear when SpaceX will fly its next used Falcon 9, but it’s possible we could see previously flown first stages being used for both commercial launches and military missions. An Air Force official indicated that flying on used Falcon 9s is certainly an option for the military. "I would be comfortable with flying with a reused booster," Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, said at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs this month, according to Florida Today. "They’ve proven they can do it. It’s going to get us to lower cost; it’s going to get us to being able to get satellites in orbit. That’s why they bring the boosters back. I think we’d be hard-pressed to say we’re not going to do it. We would embrace that."
Eventually, SpaceX hopes to use its landed Falcon 9 rockets more frequently and drastically decrease turnaround time from the vehicle’s landing to another mission. Last month, CEO Elon Musk said he’s challenged the SpaceX team with getting a landed first stage ready for flight again in as little as 24 hours.