An historic Kennedy Space Center launch pad roared back to life for the first time in nearly six years Sunday as a privately-owned rocket not only sent an unmanned cargo capsule toward the space station, but then made the first-ever daylight rocket landing nearby.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Launch Pad 39A at precisely 9:39 a.m. Rain had been pouring at the launch site less than an hour earlier, but the showers moved out as predicted.
The engines' brilliant orange flames stood out in bright contrast to the gray, hazy horizon, but only for a few seconds. The rising rocket disappeared into the low clouds before the crackling sound of the launch could even reach observers.
As planned, the rocket's lower section soon separated, leaving the upper stage to continue powering the unmanned Dragon capsule into orbit. Moments later, the first stage came plummeting back towards the landing site.
With a roar of flame and a crackling double sonic boom, the first stage appearing seemingly out of nowhere from inside the curtain of clouds. At the last second, spidery landing legs deployed and the booster touched down, just eight minutes after blasting off.
Dragon, meanwhile arrived in orbit three minutes later and extended its solar arrays. It will dock at the space station early Wednesday, bringing 5,000 pounds of fresh supplies for the astronauts.
The rocket landing was the third at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station but the first to occur during the day, giving Space Coast residents their first good look at what SpaceX hopes will become a routine sight. The company is planning to re-use the flown booster rockets in a bid to cut launch costs.
SpaceX is one of two private companies with a NASA contract to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. But the Falcon 9 rocket has been grounded since last year's explosion during a launch rehearsal that destroyed the rocket, pad, and payload, and ultimately led to changes in the rocket's fueling procedures.
SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA to use Pad 39A in 2014, but the explosion at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 41 forced them to press the historic pad into service sooner than planned.
Pad 39 is the iconic seaside launch site where Apollo astronauts blasted off for the moon and, later, where the majority of space shuttle flights began. The last flight from there was in 2011, when Atlantis closed out the shuttle program. And the last unmanned rocket to take off from the pad was a modified Saturn V carrying the Skylab space station, way back in 1973.
SpaceX hopes to use the pad to launch a powerful triple-core version of its Falcon 9 rocket, perhaps as soon as later this year, as well as manned flights to the space station and beyond.