SpaceX is usually hyped to tell us all about the payload it’s sending to orbit, but this time it doesn’t have as much to say. The company has just completed its first launch for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which is part of the Department of Defense. The NRO is responsible for launching shadowy spy satellites, like NROL-76 that was just deployed by SpaceX. All we know is that it’s going to do things in orbit. SpaceX did recover another first stage booster, though.
The launch took place at historic launch pad 39A, which was recently refurbished for use by SpaceX. The rocket lifted off at 7:15 a.m. EDT, but this was the second attempt for this launch. A mechanical issue caused the last attempt on April 30th to be scrubbed with less than a minute to go. This one was almost a wash, too. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter that wind speeds were very close to the maximum allowed for a Falcon 9 launch.
The first stage shut down and decoupled from the payload about two minutes into the launch, and that’s the last we saw of the secretive satellite. SpaceX was not permitted to provide any details or stream any footage of the payload. We aren’t even sure where it was going. SpaceX is not usually able to recover a booster after delivering to a high geosynchronous orbit because too much fuel is expended. Additionally, the Coast Guard informed the public that the rocket was expected to fly in a northeasterly trajectory. That indicates it will be operating at a lower altitude.
As if to distract us all from the secret satellite flying off into space, the company for the first time offered a continuous livestream of the first-stage booster’s descent and landing. You can see the whole thing in the video above. The first stage was successfully brought down on land, as opposed to many landings that have to take place on SpaceX’s drone ship.
SpaceX had now made a habit of landing Falcon 9 boosters — it hasn’t had a failed landing in a long time. Perhaps that’s why it was willing to let everyone watch the whole process unfold. The cost of launching something into space is vastly reduced if rockets are recovered and refurbished rather than being built for a single use. The space firm also managed to successfully launch and land a Falcon 9 in March that had been recovered from a previous launch. SpaceX is now preparing for the launch of an Inmarsat communications satellite on May 15th. However, that payload needs to make it into geosynchronous orbit, so SpaceX won’t be able to land the first stage.