CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - SpaceX got their ambitious spaceflight dreams back on track in dramatic fashion Monday evening, with a gorgeous nighttime launch that lit up the Space Coast not just once, but twice – as the rocket’s first stage returned for an unprecedented landing at Cape Canaveral.
Aboard the Falcon 9 rocket were 11 small satellites for Orbcomm, the remainder of a 17-satellite constellation for the communications company. Their orbital deployment marked the first successful launch for SpaceX since a Falcon 9 rocket blew apart during an unmanned cargo flight to the space station in June.
But for once, the space-borne payload was overshadowed by the activities of the booster itself. After two attempts to land a Falcon 9 first stage on a barge in the Atlantic failed – spectacularly – all eyes were on SpaceX to see if they could stick the landing on an old launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
As the Falcon 9’s still-ascending second stage became a small, shrinking dot in the night sky over the Atlantic, the returning booster roared to life, spitting intermittent flames as it slowed itself down from supersonic speeds.
The falling booster balanced ominously on a finger of flame as it raced downwards across the sky, disappearing back into the darkness for stretches of several seconds at a time as it throttled up and back in a controlled descent.
Finally, the yellow flame turned orange as the booster neared the ground. As it disappeared behind the treeline, hundreds of spectators on Titusvlle’s Max Brewer Bridge – one of the closest public viewing locations – held their collective breath, waiting for a giant flash that would signify the crash and explosion that had marred the previous landing attempts
But none came.
After an expectant silence, the crowd let loose with shouts and applause, realizing they had just witnessed the first successful landing of an orbital rocket booster and the culmination of years of work by SpaceX in their drive towards reusability and lower costs.
An internet feed provided by SpaceX showed their employees in California reacting with a similar, if not even more enthusiastic outburst as they watched a live downlink of the landing.
“11 satellites deployed to target orbit and Falcon has landed back at Cape Canaveral. Headed to LZ-1. Welcome back, baby! SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted, referencing the landing pad.
But the crowd at Cape Canaveral would get one more surprise that was louder than anything offered on a video feed. Moments after the orange glow from the returning rocket had faded, a loud sonic boom – generated by the descending booster but arriving after the spectacular light show thanks to the physics of sound – reverberated across the Space Coast.
It was the first such sound since the 2011 retirement of the space shuttles – whose landings were always heralded by a signature double sonic boom – except that this time, the loud boom announced a new generation of spaceship, ready to pick up where the shuttles left off.