Lighting up the early evening sky, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket streaked away Sunday from California, boosting an Argentine environmental satellite into orbit. The rocket’s previously flown first stage then flipped around and returned to the Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site, chalking up SpaceX’s first West Coast landing.
The booster put on a spectacular show as it descended tail first toward Landing Zone 4 just a few hundred yards from the rocket’s launch stand, deploying four legs and firing up one of its nine Merlin engines, seemingly at the last moment, to slow down for touchdown in a cloud of fiery exhaust.
The descent was heralded in dramatic fashion by loud sonic booms that rumbled across Southern California as the rocket homed in on its landing pad.
Such sights and sounds are familiar to residents near the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida where SpaceX first landed a Falcon 9 booster in December 2015. Between then and now, the company chalked up 10 more successful landings at the Air Force Station and another 18 on off-shore droneships.
But Sunday’s flight marked the first time SpaceX attempted a landing at Vandenberg, a milestone made possible by extensive environmental and safety studies that concluded the noise and possible aftermath of a failure would not cause any significant damage or harm to area wildlife.
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