In SpaceX’s continuous effort to recycle rockets after launches, the Falcon 9 rocket launched to the International Space Station returned to Earth the next day but failed to survive its landing on a barge in the ocean.
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CAPE CANAVERAL — After its next launch, SpaceX hopes to fly a Falcon 9 booster back to a landing site on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, making its first attempt to bring a booster down on land rather than on a platform in the ocean.

The Cape landing attempt has not yet been approved as part of a commercial launch license to be issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, and the timing of SpaceX’s next launch — the company’s first since a failed flight in June — remains uncertain.

SpaceX could try to launch of a group of small commercial communications satellites for New Jersey-based Orbcomm Inc. as soon as Dec. 15, but has not yet confirmed a date with the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing.

NASA on Tuesday confirmed the “very exciting news” while updating media representatives on SpaceX’s progress preparing Kennedy Space Center’s historic pad 39A for launches of Falcon Heavy rockets and eventually astronauts, the latter possibly in 2017.

“Their plan is to try to land (the next booster) out here on the Cape-side,” said Carol Scott of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, shortly after she discussed the plan with a SpaceX executive.

SpaceX declined to comment.

SpaceX is trying to land and recover the first stages of Falcon 9 rockets so that they can be flown again, something company CEO Elon Musk believes is a critical breakthrough necessary to reduce launch costs.

SpaceX’s next landing attempt will come weeks after Blue Origin, another private space firm started by a wealthy entrepreneur, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, successfully landed its New Shepard booster after a Nov. 23 launch in Texas.

New Shepard is a suborbital rocket that is considerably smaller and less powerful that SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which lifts off with more than 1 million pounds of thrust to send payloads into orbit.

While congratulating Blue Origin on its success, Musk made a point on Twitter of noting that SpaceX’s task was more difficult (an assertion Bezos disputed). Musk also suggested that a landing on land was in the works.

“Orbital water landing 2014,” he said on Nov. 24, referring to Falcon 9 boosters that had “soft-landed” in the ocean last year. “Orbital land landing next.”

SpaceX’s water landings were followed early this year by two close but unsuccessful attempts to land Falcon 9 boosters on an ocean platform dubbed an “autonomous spaceport drone ship.”

Both times the 14-story boosters hit the ship painted with SpaceX’s signature “X” logo, but too hard or without enough control to remain upright on landing legs.

The company still believes it has shown that it can steer a booster from space back to the ground with precision, and that trying to land on an unstable target bobbing in the ocean has only added to the challenge.

The water-based landings were always intended as practice leading up to boosters returning to land, where it would be easier and faster to recover them.

SpaceX has leased a designated landing site from the Air Force at the former Launch Complex 13, which the company has renamed “Landing Complex 1.”

Concrete pads there already feature the “X” logo marking the landing spots, but construction of the landing complex may not be fully complete.

If SpaceX does recover its next Falcon 9 booster launched from pad 40, NASA said the company would immediately use it to help test the renovations at KSC’s pad 39A in preparation for launches there as soon as next year and eventual crew launches. The rocket stage would be loaded on an erector system that will roll up the pad’s on its side and then lift the stage vertical.

“We want to see that,” Scott said of the tests. “That will be pretty cool.”

SpaceX presumably would try to launch the Falcon 9 booster a second time after a period of inspections and refurbishment, but there is no timeline for doing so.

If SpaceX does not win approval or is not ready to land the booster back on the Space Coast during its next flight, several more launches could quickly present new opportunities if the rocket returns to flight successfully.

Follow James Dean on Twitter: @flatoday_jdean

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