The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that just launched an Israeli moon lander will make some more history soon, if all goes according to plan.
The Thursday night (Feb. 21) liftoff of the Beresheet lunar lander — which in April will try to become the first privately funded craft to touch down on the moon — and two other satellites was the third spaceflight for this particular Falcon 9's first stage. The booster came back to Earth for yet another landing Thursday and will be prepped for a fourth mission, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said.
"Highest re-entry heating to date. Burning metal sparks from base heat shield visible in landing video. Fourth relight scheduled for April," Musk tweeted Thursday night.
Highest reentry heating to date. Burning metal sparks from base heat shield visible in landing video. Fourth relight scheduled for April. https://t.co/uq6TdMhgFNFebruary 22, 2019
In subsequent tweets, Musk clarified that "fourth relight" meant the fourth launch for this particular booster. That will be a first; no Falcon 9 first stage has yet flown more than three times. (The upper stage of the two-stage Falcon 9 is not reusable.)
The April mission in question is the high-altitude abort test for SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, which the company is developing to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Crew Dragon is scheduled to fly for the first time on March 2, when it will launch on an uncrewed test mission to the ISS called Demo-1.
The uncrewed abort test will take this same capsule up into the sky, then press its SuperDraco escape engines into service. The goal is to show that Crew Dragon can get astronauts out of harm's way in the event of a launch emergency.
NASA officials have said the abort test is planned for June, but it shouldn't be surprising that Musk thinks it can happen two months sooner than that. The billionaire entrepreneur is known for his ambitious timelines, after all.
Whenever the abort test occurs, it will probably be the last mission for the record-setting Falcon 9 first stage.
"High probability of this particular rocket getting destroyed by Dragon supersonic abort test. Otherwise, at least 20 or 30 missions for Falcon 9. Starship will take over before the F9 fleet reaches end of life," Musk tweeted.
Starship is the reusable spaceship SpaceX is developing to take people to and from Mars and other distant destinations and — with the help of a gigantic, reusable rocket called Super Heavy — perform every other task the company needs done.
The Starship-Super Heavy duo could launch people toward Mars for the first time in the mid-2020s if development goes well, Musk has said.
If Demo-1 and the abort test go well, SpaceX could launch astronauts to the ISS for the first time as early as July, NASA officials have said. That mission will still be a test flight, known as Demo-2. Operational, contracted ISS missions would begin after the successful completion of Demo-2.
Aerospace giant Boeing is developing its own astronaut taxi under a similar deal with NASA. Boeing's craft, a capsule called the CST-100 Starliner, is scheduled to fly its first space mission, an uncrewed test flight to the ISS similar to Demo-1, no earlier than April.
Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate) is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.