SpaceX launches 1st recycled rocket to space station

SpaceX has racked up another first, launching a recycled rocket with a recycled capsule on a NASA grocery run.

Rocket's 1st stage lands successfully for second time, Dragon will arrive at space station Sunday

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 40 at 10:36 a.m. EST at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. ( NASA)

SpaceX has racked up another first, launching a recycled rocket with a recycled capsule on a NASA grocery run.

The unmanned Falcon rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Friday with a just-in-time-for-Christmas delivery for the International Space Station, taking flight again after a six-month turnaround. On board was a Dragon supply ship, also a second-time flier.

The rocket previously flew in June. The Dragon capsule made a space station shipment in 2015.

It was NASA's first use of a reused Falcon (although some have previously been reused for non-NASA missions) and only the second of a previously flown capsule.

Within 10 minutes of liftoff, the first-stage booster was back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, standing upright on the giant X at SpaceX's landing zone. That's where it landed back in June following its first launch. Double sonic booms thundered across the area.

Across the country at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, cheers erupted outside the company's glassed-in Mission Control, where company chief Elon Musk joined his employees.

The Dragon, meanwhile, was in orbit and on track to reach the space station Sunday. The capsule last visited the 250-mile-high outpost in 2015.

This time, the Dragon is hauling nearly 5,000 pounds of goods, including 40 mice for a muscle-wasting study, a first-of-its-kind impact sensor for measuring space debris as minuscule as a grain of sand and barley seeds for a germination experiment by Budweiser, already angling to serve the first beer on Mars.

For the past two years, the private SpaceX has been salvaging as much as possible from flown rockets to drive down launch costs. Rather than letting first-stage boosters sink in the Atlantic, as other orbital rocket makers do, SpaceX flies them back to Cape Canaveral for vertical touchdowns or, when extra rocket power is needed to propel a satellite extra high, to a floating ocean platform.

NASA waited to be 4th

NASA flew its first reused Dragon back in June. But managers waited until SpaceX had three rocket reflights under its belt before putting NASA's station equipment and experiments on a secondhand Falcon.

The space agency assigned its best engineers to take part in the extensive booster inspections and reviews before launch, according to Shireman. The risk of flying a reused rocket, versus a brand new one, was judged to be pretty much equal, he said.

Friday's booster recovery was the 20th for the company.

Jessica Jensen, a SpaceX manager, said the company aims to reuse rockets — and capsules — far more than twice. The only way to get thousands of people into space — the ultimate goal of SpaceX mastermind Elon Musk — is by drastically cutting launch costs, she said.

This was the first launch from the SpaceX-rented Complex 40 in more than a year. The last time a Falcon rocket stood at the pad ready to fly, in September 2016, it blew up during a fuelling drill. SpaceX spent $50 million US ($64 million Cdn) rebuilding the pad.

Friday's successful liftoff means that SpaceX has now launched from all three of its pads — two in Florida and one in California — in the same year.

The space station is down to three astronauts until Sunday's launch of three more. The Dragon should arrive at the orbiting outpost a few hours after the fresh crew launches from Kazakhstan. Once back up to full capacity, the station will be home to three Americans, two Russians and one Japanese.

SpaceX — one of two private shippers contracted by NASA — has been making station supply runs since 2012.