Washington, May 02: SpaceX launched its first-ever mission for the U.S. Department of Defense. On Monday SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida with the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office's NROL-76 satellite aboard.
SpaceX even released a set of videos and photos document the historic flight in spectacular detail. The booster's two stages separated in less than 3 minutes into flight while the second stage continued carrying NROL-76 toward its classified destination in low-Earth orbit. The first stage performed engine burns to prep for a touchdown at SpaceX's ‘Landing Zone 1’ a facility at the Cape.
The entire time tracking cameras stayed on the first stage, capturing its various maneuvers and its pinpoint landing which occurred 9 minutes after liftoff.
According to SpaceX, the successful landing was the 10th overall for a Falcon 9 first stage and the fourth at Landing Zone 1. The other six landings have occurred on robotic ships at sea; such ocean touchdowns are necessary on missions that burn up so much fuel that the booster can't make it all the way back to the launch site.
SpaceX took a big step toward achieving this overall vision on March 30, when a Falcon 9 with a ‘pre-flown’ first stage launched the SES-10 communications satellite. These landings are part of SpaceX's effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets technology that company founder and CEO Elon Musk has said could revolutionize spaceflight by slashing its cost.
Pre-flown Falcon 9 booster had first launched in April 2016. According to SpaceX, they aim to launch, land and re-launch boosters within 24 hours. After the SES-10 mission Musk said that with no hardware changes, each Falcon 9 first stage is designed to fly 10 times and 100 times with only moderate refurbishment.
NROL-76 launch had broken a 10-year monopoly on U.S. national-security missions enjoyed by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint effort of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. SpaceX also holds contracts with the U.S. Air Force to launch global positioning satellites in 2018 and 2019.
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) operates the US fleet of spy satellites. NRO missions tend to be classified, and NROL-76 is no exception; it's unclear what observations the spacecraft will be making from its perch above Earth.