SpaceX is back to inventing the future after a successful rocket launch

Pretty as a picture.
Pretty as a picture.
Image: SpaceX
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SpaceX today launched 10 Iridium satellites on its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket before flying the first stage of the rocket back to a floating landing platform in the Pacific.

This launch marks the first flight since a Falcon 9 rocket caught fire and was destroyed during a routine engine test in September, which left the company scrambling to assure clients and regulators that its technology is up to snuff. Today’s launch brings the Falcon 9’s success rate up to 28 in 30 flights since its debut in 2010.

The 10-satellite load is one of the heaviest cargos the company has flown to orbit, and while this is the seventh successful landing of the rocket’s first stage, it is the first time SpaceX has done so after flying from its facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Since its debut, the Falcon 9 has provided a cheaper rocket than its incumbent competitors, allowing it to gain market share in at their expense. It has quickly won a major chunk of the commercial launch market and broke the Boeing-Lockheed Martin duopoly on US national-security launches. But a failed mission in 2015 and last year’s fire both put a damper on the company’s plans to move past the rocket on to new projects, forcing it to spend time and money perfecting the technology.

This latest successful launch should allow the company to start making inroads on its long list of contracts to launch rockets on behalf of commercial and government clients—the company’s most important source of revenue—while returning its attention to its next set of projects, many of them now suffering under delays.

Topping the list is reusing the rocket stages like the one the company landed on its drone ship today. Re-flying those booster stages promises the cut the cost of SpaceX launches even further and put more pressure on its competitors, but it has to prove that both the original rockets and the “flight-proven” boosters are reliable. The company planned to launch a satellite for European operators SES towards the end of 2016; that launch is now expected to occur sometime this year.

The view from the rocket as it landed.
Image: SpaceX

Up next?

The company’s next move is the long-promised Falcon Heavy rocket, which would essentially provide the power of three Falcon 9 rockets in one launch vehicle. The first flight test of the Heavy was delayed due to the two accidents, but the company expects to fly it this year. The first image of the rocket was published by SpaceX in December 2016.

The company also hopes to do the first unmanned test of its Dragon II spacecraft, which is being designed to fly astronauts for NASA starting with the first manned flight in 2018. Hitting that mark—and beating rival Boeing, which is competing for the same contract—will require a timely demonstration of the craft’s unmanned capabilities ahead of time. It will also need to navigate criticism of its fueling procedures from NASA advisors, who worry about the safety of astronauts flying on SpaceX rockets.

And underlying all of this is SpaceX’s hope to fly more rockets in 2017 than it has in any other year, with 18 launches expected. (Owner Elon Musk also has a similarly ambitious year lined up at his other company, Tesla.)

The company has stressed that it wants to increase its launches— to as often as every two weeks—in order to accommodate client needs. In 2016, SpaceX was nearly on that pace before the failed launch derailed its efforts. Besides doing all the work for its new programs, it will also need to keep the Falcon 9 flying routinely.

The company can’t afford another prolonged setback that would create delays in its other projects. So, how does that compare to your to-do list?