On a beautiful Florida evening just one calendar day shy of a full moon, SpaceX provided some illumination of its own, recording a flawless liftoff and landing of its Falcon 9 rocket during the course of launching its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station for the NASA CRS-9 mission.
Liftoff took place on time at 12:45:23 AM EDT at the conclusion of a problem-free countdown, an increasingly common occurrence for a company which has seen more than its share of launch drama. Approximately ten minutes later, the Dragon was in orbit and NASA officials could breathe a sigh of relief that the first of two International Docking Adapters was on its way to the ISS. With its arrival and installation, the United States will have made the most significant addition to the outpost since the final flight of the Space Shuttle five years ago this month, and one which will pave the way for SpaceX and Boeing to begin launching crew.
As important as the mission is, it was of course the landing which drew the most attention. With the launch taking place under a midnight sky peppered with broken clouds, the returning first stage seemed to come and go as it made its boost back and re-entry burns. In the moments in between, it was almost easy to forget that the stage, still over the ocean, was silently hurtling towards land somewhere out there in the night.
That was until the center Merlin 1-D engine roared to life for the fourth time in less than 8 minutes, growing brighter and louder as the booster descended towards its landing pad with a curious combination of speed and authority which almost seemed to suggest that this was already becoming old hat. And then came the double barreled sonic booms which prompted calls to 911, a thoroughly understandable response at the conclusion of a week which has given everyone cause for added concern.
For SpaceX at least, it was night to celebrate. Dragon is on the way to ISS, and the Falcon has returned to its roost.