Falcon 9 Launches Orbcomm Satellites, Lands First Stage

by Jeff Foust, Space News – December 21, 2015

Updated at 10:20 p.m. Eastern

OMAHA, Neb. — A SpaceX upgraded Falcon 9 rocket lifted off Dec. 21 and placed 11 Orbcomm satellites in orbit, while the first stage successfully landed back near the launch site at Cape Canaveral.

The upgraded Falcon 9 lifted off at 8:29 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Deployment of the 11 Orbcomm satellites started about 14 minutes after liftoff, and Orbcomm Chief Executive Marc Eisenberg said on Twitter that all 11 satellites had checked in after deployment.

 While the Falcon 9’s second stage ascended towards orbit, the first stage started a series of burns to head back to a decommissioned launch site called Landing Zone 1, several kilometers south of the launch site. The first stage touched down on the pad there nearly 10 minutes after liftoff and remained upright, according to webcast video of the landing attempt.

“The Falcon has landed,” the SpaceX launch director said as video showed the first stage standing on the pad after landing. Loud cheers erupted at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, where employees gathered to view the launch and landing.

“It’s been a very celebratory atmosphere here at SpaceX. I think people are really overjoyed,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a brief media teleconference about an hour after the launch.

The launch and landing represent several major milestones for SpaceX. The launch was the first for the Falcon 9 since a failure in June on a cargo mission to the International Space Station. The launch was also the first of an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, with increased thrust, an improved stage separation system and a stretched upper stage that can hold additional propellant.

The landing at Landing Zone 1 was also the first time SpaceX had successfully landed the rocket’s first stage. Previous attempts on launches in January and April to land the first stage on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean failed, with the stages either crashing into the deck of the ship or toppling over upon landing.

The successful landing, and earlier attempts, are part of a larger effort by SpaceX to make the Falcon 9 at least partially reusable. “With reusable rockets, we can reduce the cost of access to space by probably two orders of magnitude,” or a factor of 100, Musk said in a Dec. 15 speech at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The launch was originally scheduled for Dec. 19, but delayed to Dec. 20 after a static fire test on the pad, originally scheduled for Dec. 16, was postponed until Dec. 18. SpaceX then postponed a launch attempt Dec. 20 several hours before the scheduled launch, with Musk explaining via Twitter that simulations suggested slightly better odds for a successful landing if the launch was delayed a day.

The successful launch and landing won praise from industry and government officials. “Today clearly placed the exclamation mark on 2015, by closing out another successful year for the Eastern Range in historic fashion,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing that operates the overall Cape Canaveral launch complex, in a Dec. 21 statement.

“This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can’t even begin to describe the excitement the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing,” Monteith added.

“Through a year of hard lessons learned, SpaceX’s December return to flight and successful planned landing of its first stage, just six months after the June mishap, reminds us of this industry’s best qualities: agility, innovation and perseverance,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a Dec. 21 statement.

SpaceX also received congratulations, of a more sarcastic sort, from the founder of a competing company. “Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage,” tweeted Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin. “Welcome to the club!”

Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!

— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) December 22, 2015

Bezos’ Blue Origin successfully landed the propulsion module of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle on a Nov. 23 test flight from the company’s West Texas test site. After the test, Musk congratulated Bezos for the landing, but suggested that the achievement was not as significant as Bezos claimed, citing SpaceX’s record of low-altitude landing tests and SpaceX’s use of a larger vehicle that is part of an orbital launch system.

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