SpaceX Reports No Damage to Falcon 9 First Stage After Landing

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WASHINGTON — The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage that made a historic landing in Florida after a launch last month survived the flight with no damage, clearing the way for ground tests, the company’s chief executive said.

In a Dec. 31 tweet, Elon Musk published a photo of part of the Falcon 9 first stage. “Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral. No damage found, ready to fire again,” he wrote. The image, a closeup of part of the first stage, showed only superficial effects from the flight, such as discoloration from soot deposited by the rocket’s engine plumes.

The first stage landed at the former Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, renamed Landing Zone 1 by SpaceX, ten minutes after liftoff from the nearby Launch Complex 40 Dec. 21. The landing was the first time the company had landed the stage, after failed landing attempts on a shipborne platform during launches in January and April 2015.

SpaceX moved the stage Dec. 24 from the landing site to a new hangar it constructed by Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center, the former space shuttle launch site SpaceX is leasing from NASA. Another photo published by SpaceX Jan. 3 showed the stage on its side inside the hangar.

Musk, in a Dec. 21 conference call with reporters, said the company plans to test the recovered stage on the pad at LC-39A. “We’ll do a static fire on the launch pad there, to confirm that all systems are good and that we’re able to do a full-thrust hold-down firing of the rocket,” he said. “

For SpaceX, the landing was a major milestone in its efforts to develop a reusable version of the Falcon 9. However, Musk indicated in the conference call that this stage would not fly again. “We’ll probably keep this one on the ground, because it’s kind of unique. It’s the first one that we’ve brought back,” he said. “We’ll confirm through tests that it could fly again.”

Musk said he expects to refly a Falcon 9 first stage some time in 2016, saying the company has “well over a dozen” launches planned for the upcoming year. “Some time next year,” he said Dec. 21, “we would aim to refly one of the rocket boosters.”

It’s not certain on which Falcon 9 missions SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage. The next Falcon 9 launch is scheduled for Jan. 17 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, carrying the Jason-3 satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That launch, however, will be the last for the older v1.1 variant of the Falcon 9. The Dec. 21 launch was the first of an upgraded version with additional thrust, and future launches will also use the upgraded Falcon 9.

After Jason-3, SpaceX plans to launch the SES-9 communications satellite for SES in late January, followed by a Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station in February. The company has not disclosed any plans to land the Falcon 9 first stage, either at Landing Zone 1 or on a ship, for those missions.

Musk acknowledged last month that even with successful landings of Falcon 9 first stages on future missions, it will take some time for the company to sort out how to use them on later missions. “I imagine we’ll have a whole fleet of booster rockets accumulating quite rapidly,” he said. “It’ll take us a few years to iron that all out and make sure it all works well.”