CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Sonic booms early Monday from a SpaceX rocket re-entering the atmosphere rattled buildings and caused a scare for many, prompting calls to 911 and News 6.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket touched down at SpaceX’s landing pad at the Cape minutes after a 12:45 a.m. blastoff just up the coast, with a Dragon spacecraft packed with International Space Station supplies.
With an engine firing brightly to slow its speed, the booster dropped through the darkness to a soft landing on four legs, an event punctuated by sonic booms that took many by surprise.
Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of flight reliability, said the sound of returning Falcon stages eventually would become as familiar as the twin booms that heralded a space shuttle's return home.
“I believe it’s going to be the same thing,” he said. “It takes some time to get used to it.”
The booster was the fifth SpaceX has recovered during its last eight missions, and the second to land at the Cape since December, when the company achieved its historic first landing during a launch of commercial satellites.
Three more boosters have touched down intact on the deck of a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX believes the experimental landings will lead to reusable rockets that can advance space exploration by dramatically lowering launch costs.
The rocket is “ready to fly again,” CEO Elon Musk said after preliminary inspections were completed overnight at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
“The whole goal is to lower the cost of space travel,” said Koenigsmann.
The company is in discussions with an unnamed customer to re-launch a used Falcon booster as soon as this fall.
Meanwhile, the Dragon and its nearly 5,000 pounds of food, equipment and science experiments are on their way to a Wednesday morning rendezvous with the International Space Station and its six-person Expedition 48 crew.
Around 7 a.m. Wednesday, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams will attempt to snare the unmanned spacecraft with the station’s 58-foot robotic arm.
“It’s exciting to have a Dragon back in orbit,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy program manager for ISS utilization. “The Dragon’s doing fine.”
The Dragon’s cargo includes a 1,000-pound docking ring that is key to a resumption of astronaut launches from U.S. soil, which ended with the shuttle’s retirement in 2011.
The $26 million International Docking Adapter must be installed to a port on the orbiting research complex before astronauts flying in Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon can dock there.
The first test flights by those “commercial crew” vehicles are expected to launch from the Space Coast by late 2017 or early 2018.
A first docking ring launched last summer was destroyed when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 failed for the first time.
Since then, SpaceX has completed eight successful missions, and the seven so far in 2016 make it the company’s best calendar year ever.
SpaceX could add to that total with two more launches next month, missions that would attempt booster landings at sea.
The cargo launch Monday was SpaceX’s ninth of up to 20 envisioned under a NASA contract worth up to $3.1 billion.
Next up on the Cape is a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket targeting a July 28 liftoff with a National Reconnaissance Office mission.