Elon Musk, a serial entrepreneur and a co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, confirmed on Friday that his company SpaceX successfully executed a soft landing of its Falcon 9 rocket's first stage in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Falcon 9 rocket was used last week to launch the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station.
It was the first time the rocket's first stage, or the bottom part of the rocket that's ignited at launch, was equipped with four "landing legs."
These legs would eventually be used to land the Falcon 9 stage on the ground so that the rocket could be recovered and reused. The first test was over the water, hence the soft landing.
The rocket successfully reignited after separating and was guided into the ocean. The first stage managed to make it back to earth without burning up and splashed down into the ocean in a vertical position with the legs deployed. The rocket transmitted data for about 8 seconds after reaching the water. The transmission stopped after the stage tipped over into a horizontal position.
A big storm made the recovery of the rocket impossible, and rescuers couldn't get a ship there for two days. "The recovery operations were challenging," Musk told reporters in Washington, D.C.
The seas were heavy, he said, so the recovery team suspects the stage was destroyed, eventually filling with water and sinking. They were, however, able to find pieces that join the first and second stages. Musk said it was a better outcome than expected. The company had previously put the chance of a successful recovery at about 30%.
If they had been able to recover the stage from the ocean, it would have taken about a couple months to refurbish it for flight, Musk said. In principle, if the rocket touched down on land it should be back up and ready to use again that day. Reusable rockets will make space flight much cheaper, since the cost of fuel is considerably less expensive than the cost to build a new rocket from scratch each use.
Musk also announced that SpaceX is filing a protest against the U.S. Air Force's award of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle flights to United Launch Alliance, which prevents private companies such as SpaceX from competing for these contracts for national security launches.
"The Air Force said we had to do three launches and we did," Musk said. "Then they told us they'd done an uncompeted award to ULA. That's wrong."
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