In March & April of 2014, 38 people with strong social media skills were selected by NASA to cover the launch of SpaceX Commercial Resupply Mission 3 to the International Space Station. We got to see a lot of science. But one thing significant about CRS-3: SpaceX had installed landing legs on the Falcon 9 rocket. After sending the Dragon spacecraft towards the ISS, SpaceX would attempt a soft landing in the ocean. Last night, on December 21, 2015, four of us from that NASA Social were able to witness the completion of that lofty goal: SpaceX sent 11 Orbcomm satellites to orbit. About 50 media were stationed at Exploration Tower to watch the launch and landing attempt. Here is my streak shot of the launch as shot from the 7th floor roof of Exploration Tower.
Shortly after the second stage of the rocket separated, we watched as the engines on the Falcon were re-ignited for a boost-back burn. Media veterans commented that the first re-entry burn seemed like it was happening directly above our heads. We tracked the rocket after the first burn, and through a second burn. The rocket was dropping, and dropping fast towards the beach in front of us. Eventually, a landing burn was ignited. I remember how fast the rocket seemed to be still falling towards the launch pad. Realizing that we were seeing history, people began cheering on the rocket. “Slow down baby!”. Sure enough, just as the rocket approached the landing pad, it slowed to 0 MPH and set down on those legs that we had first seen tested in 2014. A loud sonic boom arrived about a second after touchdown. I’ve come to know many of the media who cover these events and this is the first time that I’ve seen people cheer and high-five after the launch. This is my 25-second streak shot of the rocket *landing*.
About an hour later, Elon Musk held a conference call with media. Imagine this: what if, for the first 50 years of commercial aviation, every single flight involved a single-use aircraft? That’s right, you would board your Southwest flight from Orlando to Dallas and after the flight, they would have to throw the aircraft away. Imagine if the customers were used to paying $500,000 per flight. Then, suddenly, someone comes up with the idea of building an aircraft that could be used over and over and over. It would be a two-order-of-magnitude change. Instead of $500,000 per ride, you could get from Orlando to Dallas for $121, provided you were willing to book 14 days ahead of time. What Elon Musk and SpaceX achieved on December 21, 2015 was that important. This particular rocket will be re-fueled and used to test Pad 39-A (another event that many CRS-3 NASA Social folks witnessed was NASA and SpaceX inking the deal for SpaceX to use this pad.) This particular rocket will never fly again – it will be in the Smithsonian some day. But SpaceX has proved the concept. Adding new propellant will cost $200,000 per Musk. As you will note in this before-and-after photo of the same Falcon 9, a lot of white paint will be needed between flights. Those “white legs” you see on the right are the spots where the fold-down legs used to be. The legs protected the paint from burning off.
On Tuesday, December 22, 2015, SpaceX chartered a boat to take any interested media for a photo opportunity of the landed rocket from the beach. Florida Today was running a nearly-full-page front page announcing that the Falcon had Landed. In this image, Karen LaFon from the SpaceX range integration team in Florida holds that morning’s paper with the landed Falcon 9 in the background.
This launch and landing provides the perfect bookend for the journey that many of started with CRS-3. Photographs and stories from March 2014 through December 2015 are being compiled into a new book called We Report Space.