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SpaceX Satellite Launch Marks U.S. Military Embrace of Reusable Rockets

Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully blasted a U.S. Space Force satellite into orbit and then recovered the main portion of the Falcon 9 rocket, in the first military mission incorporating the reusable feature which has become a hallmark of the company’s commercial and civilian government launches.

The launch of the Global Positioning System satellite, into partly cloudy skies at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Tuesday afternoon, marks the Pentagon’s formal embrace of Mr. Musk’s concept of recovering and reusing the booster’s lower stage and primary engines to make rocket launches more efficient and cost-effective. The same part of the rocket has been recovered in dozens of previous Falcon 9 launches, but none of those were for the military. Some lower stages have flown several times.

Pentagon space leaders had for years expressed outright skepticism—and then persistent ambivalence—about vertically landing and reusing portions of rockets that flew outside the atmosphere. Many of their doubts focused on reduced fuel reserves for the primary mission if fuel had to be set aside to slow down the returning booster before its landing on a specially outfitted recovery vessel.

But after extensive discussions between Mr. Musk’s team and military launch officials, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. agreed to slightly reduce the cost of the latest launch in return for Pentagon authorization to try to return the most expensive and biggest part of the booster.

Tuesday’s liftoff and ascent played out without a hitch, as the lower stage separated about 2 1/2 minutes into the flight, while the upper stage and its payload continued toward a designated orbit around the earth. Roughly six minutes later, the returning booster gently touched down on retractable legs in the middle of a converted barge called “Just Read the Instructions.”

The Space Force issued a press release Monday touting the benefits of “unique cost saving opportunities like recovering a booster.”

Mr. Musk and his senior managers have said refurbishing and reusing parts of the Falcon 9 also provides essential data about the performance and durability of the rocket—information that can’t be gathered any other way. Senior Pentagon officials, though, at this point haven’t followed the lead of commercial and civilian government counterparts in giving the green light to put high-priority payloads on top of previously flown boosters.

The Global Positioning System satellite launched Tuesday, designed to last longer and transmit more powerful signals than earlier versions, will join 31 other operational spacecraft that make up the GPS constellation. The latest-generation satellite, manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp., also provides the military with more accurate and harder-to-jam signals.

Recently, the military signed a contract with SpaceX enabling government engineers to more closely monitor rocket-refurbishment efforts. But it isn’t clear when Pentagon brass will agree to launch satellites atop previously flown boosters.

In the coming weeks, the Pentagon is expected to select two providers for the next phase of national security launches. Two of the bidders, SpaceX and Blue Origin Federation LLC, run by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, feature reusable boosters.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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Article source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/spacex-satellite-launch-marks-u-s-military-embrace-of-reusable-rockets-11593556483

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