SpaceX’s first West Coast booster landing on land

Last night, SpaceX’s SAOCOM 1A mission from Vandenberg AFB in California went off without a hitch. For all appearances, it was a routine satellite launch to a low polar orbit. The timing, just after sunset, made for some beautiful sights (or terrifying sights, depending on the viewer). The spacecraft and their exhaust gases were high enough to be illuminated by the sun, which was well over the horizon by launch time.

What caught my attention, however, was the return-to-launch-site (RTLS) booster landing. All previous RTLS landings have been on the US east coast, at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral AFS LZ-1 landing pad, which is far removed from the launch pads SLC-40 and LC-39A at 9 km (5.6 mi) and 14.8 km (9.2 mi), respectively. The LZ-4 landing pad on the west coast, however, is relatively close to the launch pad, at only about 425 meters (1400 ft or about a quarter of a mile). SpaceX captured the difference beautifully in the photo below.



SpaceX’s SAOCOM 1A mission launches from SLC-4E, delivers a payload to orbit, and lands 425 meters to the west at LZ-4 (photo by SpaceX)

Launch photographer John Kraus (one of my personal favorites) captured a similarly dramatic photo from a different perspective, using a sound-activated camera:



SAOCOM 1A launch and landing, about 8 minutes and 1400 ft apart (photo by John Kraus)


The ability to land boosters back at the launch site is critical to quick turnaround and low-cost reusability of Falcon 9. Landing at sea requires waiting on the landing ship to return to port, loading onto a truck, and transport back to the launch site. SpaceX are working on the ability to reuse the same first stage booster within 24 hours of a launch.

You can see more great shots from last night’s mission, and many more on SpaceX’s Flickr account and John Kraus’ website. Congratulations to SpaceX on the christening of their new landing pad, and nice work to the photographer(s)!


Final launch of historic Delta II rocket this weekend

This weekend will see the final flight of the Delta II rocket, launching NASA’s ICESat-2 (Saturday, Sept. 15 at 05:46 Pacific/12:46 UTC) from Vandenberg AFB in California. You can watch this launch on ULA’s website.

To date, the Delta II has successfully launched 153 missions, with 1 spectacular failure (a GPS mission), and 1 partial failure. Over its lifetime, it has been a major workhorse in the US unmanned space program, as well as commercial space. Among other payloads, the Delta II rocket has launched:

Delta II was also involved in the story of Lottie Williams, the only person on record to have ever been hit by orbital space debris. In 1997, Lottie was walking in a park in Tulsa, Oklahoma when a twisted, charred, light piece of metal fell out of the sky, “tapped” her on the shoulder and fell to the ground. She was uninjured. Later analysis revealed the debris to be from the second stage of the Midcourse Space Experiment, a mission launched by (ironically?) the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization on a Delta II rocket.

ICESat-2 will be using the last complete Delta II rocket in the United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s inventory. Missions capable of being launched by the Delta II recently have been launched using other, more modern rocket types. ULA CEO Tory Bruno suggested that “most” of the parts to build a Delta II remain in inventory, raising the possibility of a museum display.

The retirement of the Delta II marks the end of the career of a record-setting workhorse. If successful, ICESat-2 will be the 100th consecutive mission success for Delta II. It has been an important force in US space exploration and commercial success. However, today, more modern and efficient rockets are taking over the stage. With more nations and companies with orbital capabilities than ever before, and innovators pushing the envelope of what is possible and driving down costs, a new global space era beckons.