A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched from Kennedy Space Center at 3:10 p.m. Friday. The first stage, which was previously flown in January, landed on a drone ship off the coast of Florida about eight minutes later.
In the process, SpaceX will tie and then surpass its high mark of eight successful launches in a calendar year — if it can avoid the type of failures that derailed fast starts in each of the two previous years.
“A lot of that is turning things into routine, I would say, and learning just to deal with these operations better and better every time,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of flight reliability, of the company’s high flight rate in 2017.
Eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff with the nearly 8,000-pound BulgariaSat-1 spacecraft, the Falcon 9’s first stage landed on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean, an event not visible from the shore.
That would be a familiar experience for a booster that launched and landed for the first time in January, when it lifted Iridium satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
SpaceX in March proved it can reuse large, orbital-class rockets, launching the SES-10 satellite with a first stage that had flown a year earlier.
The “flight proven” stage launching Friday, which test-fired nine Merlin main engines last Thursday, is being turned around for its second flight in half as much time.
“We have full confidence in the reused first stage,” said Wendy Lewis, a spokeswoman for satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral, which signed the launch contract with SpaceX. “We think this is going to be the way of the future, that launch vehicles aren’t going to be throwaways.”
Maxim Zayakov, CEO of BulgariaSat and Bulsatcom, echoed that confidence.
“We ended up finding out that this is not that much of a risk,” Zayakov told FLORIDA TODAY last month. “In fact, we think the other way around, because a 'flight proven' first stage has all its systems been already used in flight, and it is very thoroughly checked after that, too.”
The companies did not say how much refurbishment the booster underwent, or how much of a discount came with the used rocket. SpaceX advertises satellite launches on new rockets for $62 million.
“We think that this is a good choice and, yes, of course it saved us some money,” said Zayakov.