SpaceX sent a rocket soaring toward orbit Monday night with 11 small satellites, its first mission since an accident last summer. Then it landed the leftover 15-story booster back on Earth, safely.
It was the first time a rocket returned to land vertically at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and a tremendous success for SpaceX.
Company employees broke into cheers and chants following the touchdown 10 minutes after liftoff. Previous landing attempts failed, but those aimed for an ocean platform.
SpaceX employees jammed company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, anxiously awaiting success outside Mission Control. They cheered at full throttle when the first stage separated cleanly two minutes into flight and reoriented itself for an unprecedented return to Cape Canaveral. Then the roar became deafening, as TV cameras showed the first-stage booster landing right on a giant X at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX commentators called it "incredibly exciting" and were visibly moved by the feat.
"This has been a wildly successful return to flight for SpaceX," said a SpaceX launch commentator. "We made history today."
The touchdown was a secondary objective for SpaceX. The first was hoisting the satellites for OrbComm, a New Jersey-based communication company. All 11 were successfully deployed.
"Here she comes back," OrbComm chief executive officer Marc Eisenberg said via Twitter. "Bullseye."
On its previous flight back in June, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket failed shortly after liftoff, destroying a supply ship intended for the International Space Station. A snapped strut in the upper stage was to blame. SpaceX spent months correcting the problem and improving the unmanned rocket. It hopes to resume supply runs for NASA in February.
The booster-landing zone, a former Atlas missile-launching site, is about six miles from the launch pad. SpaceX is leasing the touchdown area - marked by a giant X - from the Air Force. The reinforced concrete provides a stable surface, unlike the barges used for the initial attempts, primarily for increased safety.
SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, a billionaire who also runs the Tesla electric car company, hopes to reduce launch costs by reusing rocket parts. Three tries at vertical landings of the first-stage boosters earlier this year failed; in each case, the segment aimed for a modified barge off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. This time, Musk opted for a true land landing.
Blue Origin, another billionaire's rocket company, successfully landed a booster last month in West Texas. That rocket, though, had been used for a suborbital flight. The SpaceX booster was more powerful and flying faster in order to put satellites into orbit.