SpaceX Nails Perfect Return to Flight Launch and Historic Vertical Return Landing – Gallery

“There and back again,” said SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk after the amazing successful ‘Return to Flight’ launch of the firms Falcon 9 rocket and history making vertical return landing at Cape Canaveral, Fla, on Monday evening, Dec. 21.

For the first time in history, the first stage of a rocket blazing to orbit with a payload, separated successfully from the upper stage at high speed, turned around and then flew back to nail a successful rocket assisted upright touchdown back on the ground.

The upgraded “full thrust” SpaceX Falcon 9 blasted off Monday night, Dec. 21 at 8:29 p.m. from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. carrying a constellation of ORBCOMM OG2 communications satellites to low Earth orbit.

“The Falcon Has Landed!” gushed exuberant SpaceX officials during a live webcast.

Read below what some excited eyewitnesses told Universe Today.

SpaceX Falcon 9 in final seconds of descent to successful touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Dec 21, 2015. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Accompanied by multiple shocking loud sonic booms, the 156 foot tall Falcon 9 first stage separated about 3 minutes into flight and landed successfully on the ground about 10 minutes later at the SpaceX Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) complex at the Cape, some six miles south from pad 40.

The goal of SpaceX is to recover and eventually reuse the boosters in order to radically reduce the the cost of sending payloads and people to space, as often stated by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

My colleague and well known long time space photographer Julian Leek, remarked that the whole experience was fantastic!

“It was fantastic! You just would not believe the feeling,” space photographer Julian Leek told Universe Today. See his photos below.

“One of the best things I have seen since Apollo 11 liftoff!”

“It was one of the most spectacular space events I’ve seen,” said Jeff Seibert, another media photographer colleague.

“We felt like the rocket was coming down on top of us!”

Touchdown view of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Dec. 21, 2015 as seen from atop Exploration Tower. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

See the dramatic landing in this SpaceX video taken from a nearby helicopter:

“Honestly it will be something I’ll always remember!” astronomy enthusiast Carol Higgins of the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society of Utica NY, told Universe Today.

“Seeing that thing falling so fast toward Earth, then the engine fire to slow it down, then watching it falling closer to the Cape – my heart was pounding so fast and hard I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me LOL!”

This morning, Dec. 22, media reps were taken on a boat trip along the Cape’s Atlantic Ocean coastline past Landing Zone 1 for a birdseye view of the Falcon 9 standing upright.

Two cranes from Beyel Bros Crane and Rigging were seen hoisting and moving the Falcon 9 first stage from the vertical to horizontal position at ‘Landing Zone 1’ according to Steven M Beyel.

Post landing Ocean View of SpaceX Falcon 9 recovered first stage the day after touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Dec 21, 2015 being hoisted by Beyel Bros cranes. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

The primary mission of the Falcon 9 launch was to carry a fleet of eleven small ORBCOMM OG2 commercial communications satellites to orbit on the second of two OG2 launches. All 11 satellites were successfully deployed at an altitude of about 400 mi (620 km) above Earth.

The next generation ORBCOMM OG2 satellites provide Machine – to – Machine (M2M) messaging and Automatic Identification System (AIS) services with capabilities far beyond the OG1 series.

Here’s an expanding galley of photos and video for the Dec 21, 2015 launch and landing at Cape Canaveral.

So check back later for more!

SpaceX Falcon 9 in final seconds of descent to successful touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Dec 21, 2015. Credit: Chuck Higgins
Up close post landing ocean view of landing legs at base of SpaceX Falcon 9 at Landing Zone 1 the day after stage touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Dec 21, 2015 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
SpaceX Falcon 9 in final seconds of descent to successful touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Dec 21, 2015. Credit: Dawn Taylor Leek
Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 21, 2015. 10 minutes later the first stage successfully landed vertically back at the Cape in a historic first time feat. Credit: Julian Leek

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 21, 2015. 10 minutes later the first stage successfully landed vertically back at the Cape in a historic first time feat. Credit: Julian Leek
Falcon 9 standing on LZ-1 at Cape Canaveral post landing on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 21, 2015. First stage successfully landed vertically back at the Cape ten minutes later for the first time in history. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Here’s the Dec 21 launch from my video camera placed at pad 40

Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC,, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

View Comments

  • This is amazing. Who would have thought that Space X will be back with magic after the failed attempts to land on a barge.
    Space is the limit, at least, for now.
    Congratulations. Musk is a must in future space travel.

  • Truly exciting! Hope Musk and Space X can eventually support and launch his own astronauts--wouldn't it be a real coup if he actually could beat NASA to Mars? By the way, Ken, exactly how close to the "X" did the first stage land? I've got a bet riding on your answer....

    • @BRYAN: In the video clip posted at the end of the article, one can see the full concrete pad as a very large circle, with a lighter colored circle about half that diameter in the middle, while the (comparatively) tiny SpaceX logo sits dead center.

      In the video, it looks like the flame from the engine comes down dead center of the logo. At that point the video darkens to compensate for the brightness of the flame, and once the engine shuts off the video doesn't brighten back up in time to be sure of the actual location of the booster before the clip ends.

      Let's just say, center of mass was likely somewhere within the span of the logo, so I'd give it full marks for a bulls-eye, fwiw.

      • Thanks, Smokey. I had thought much the same, but my bet adversary told me he would not consider my opinion as a deciding one--it had to be in print. He grudgingly agreed to accept your comment (he bet against it being close to the mark, if at all), and I win the bet! The prize? A prime rib dinner, paid for by him!!

  • Spacex is outstandng! Fantastic result, Well Done... You truly are showing the World how to get the job done.

  • I wonder how long SpaceX will use legs. You could have some moving landing tower that grabs the rocket softly. That would make the rocket a bit lighter and simpler.

    If it comes to that, it is pretty wasteful having every aircraft carry their own landing gear. There ought to be something on the runway that launches and catches them.

  • Now that the technology to return a rocket stage has been demonstrated, the disposable qualities (e.g. mass) are no longer a priority. Larger more "solid" rockets can be considered for re-use. Go have fun engineers!

  • This is just so WAY double extra groovy cool! Christmas comes early! Go SpaceX!

    Can't wait to see two boosters land in sequence after a return from a Falcon Heavy boost... then what? 5-10 minutes later the core stage booster lands. THAT my friends will definitely seal the deal. SpaceX is obviously going in the right direction. I wonder which of the major players will follow suite first?

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