SpaceX launched its first rocket since a big explosion last year, when one of the private spaceflight’s rockets annihilated a $200m satellite in a spectacular and costly setback.
“Falcon 9 operation is nominal,” an engineer declared about a minute after the Saturday morning launch from Vandenberg air force base in southern California, as clapping broke out behind him.
About two minutes and 48 seconds into flight, the rocket’s engine shut down and the engineer announced: “Everything looking good.”
Saturday’s launch was SpaceX’s first since September, when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on its launchpad at Cape Canaveral in southern Florida. The explosion destroyed the rocket and its payload, an Amos 6 communications satellite that Facebook wanted to use to provide internet to parts of Africa.
The accident grounded SpaceX’s fleet of reusable rockets, which had been steadily building a record of landings.
On Saturday the Falcon 9 rocket landed successfully on a barge in the Pacific Ocean, the first landing on a new drone ship there, prompting the engineers to burst into cheers.
The latest launch was first scheduled for last Sunday, but intense storms forced delays. Commissioned by the telecom company Iridium, the rocket carried 10 communications satellites into space, the first of an intended satellite “constellation” the Virginia-based tech giant means to use to replace its current global network of phone and data relays. Iridium has contracted SpaceX for $468m over seven launches.
In an investigation into last fall’s explosion, SpaceX engineers concluded that a fault in the function of a helium tank caused the accident. The subsequent inquiry and safety delays pushed back the company’s scheduled test of its new Falcon Heavy rocket and new tests of previously used rockets.
Elon Musk, the tech billionaire and CEO of SpaceX, told CNBC last year that the problem surprised engineers.
“It’s never been encountered before in the history of rocketry,” he said. Giving few details about how helium might have frozen oxygen fuel to a dangerous temperature for the rocket engine, Musk said: “This is the toughest puzzle that we’ve ever had to solve.”
Internal financial documents, reported by the Wall Street Journal, showed that such accidents can have dramatic consequences for a private spaceflight company. The documents showed that SpaceX suffered a $260m loss after a June 2015 explosion, and that the company did not likely meet its financial goals in 2016.
These struggles have not dimmed Musk’s ambitions, however: he hopes to take humans to Mars by 2024 and to launch 4,000 SpaceX satellites.
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