SpaceX put on a first-of-its-kind celestial show for spectators throughout the Lompoc Valley — and surrounding Central Coast — on Sunday night as the aerospace manufacturer hit another historic milestone from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from VAFB at 7:21 p.m., and then made history about eight minutes later by sticking the first-ever landing attempt of a rocket back on a recently-completed landing zone at the base. It was the first such landing on the West Coast, and SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk was in Lompoc to witness and celebrate the achievement.
"Falcon 9 has landed — first West Coast land landing of an orbital class rocket booster," SpaceX tweeted shortly after the landing.
The primary objective for the launch was to deliver an observation satellite into orbit as part of the SAOCOM mission for the Argentine space agency CONAE. The liftoff was among the more anticipated in recent memory from VAFB, particularly because of the landing.
A long trail of cars lined a stretch of West Ocean Avenue just west of Lompoc and along Highway 1 just north of the city, which were two of several locations at which spectators gathered to witness the milestone event. Musk, the billionaire businessman who also owns Tesla, was with a crowd at Lompoc's downtown Hangar 7 Wine Bar to witness the spectacle.
The rocket's burning boosters could be seen brightly glowing in the mostly cloudless sky during its ascent. Once high into the sky, and still visible, it created massive glowing orbs, tinted with a blue hue, as the first stage of the rocket separated and prepared for its descent.
Spectators on the ground in the Lompoc Valley were also able to witness the fall back to VAFB, which was marked by a few loud, quick booms, akin to massive fireworks.
The Falcon 9 rocket took off from VAFB's Space Launch Complex-4East and returned to the landing zone about 1,400 feet away at what was formerly Space Launch Complex-4West.
SpaceX had previously landed the first stage of rockets on a drone ship off the coast of VAFB, but Sunday marked the first time the company, after several years of preparation, was able to bring one back to land.
Officials from VAFB and the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management had issued warnings prior to the launch alerting residents throughout Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties about the possibility of sonic booms related to the launch and landing. A sonic boom is created when an object travels faster than the speed of sound.
SpaceX began landing the first stage of Falcon 9 rockets on land in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2015. The landings were touted by the company as a way to immediately reuse rockets, which in turn would greatly reduce costs associated with space travel. Land-based landings, according to the company, allow for quicker post-launch processing of the recovered rockets.
Sunday’s was SpaceX’s 17th launch this year overall, leaving the company one shy of last year's record-setting 18. It was also the company's 12th overall soil-based landing — going back to 2015 — after 11 such landings in Florida, and the 30th successful landing overall, including those on drone ships.