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The US Air Force’s unmanned space plan, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), was launched for the fifth time in September 2017. This was not only the first launch within the programme using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (all four previous launches were provided by United Launch Alliance, or ULA). However, more significantly, it was also the OTV programme’s first launch involving a reusable launch system (RLS), where the first stage booster returns to a designated spot for reuse.
This was, essentially, a double first – with both the payload and its launcher (at least part of it) eventually coming back to Earth to be readied for future missions. While a coup for SpaceX in terms of a successful first launch of a new multi-launch contract, this event also highlighted the trust shown by the USAF in a revolutionary technology that is still less than two years old. The first successful landing for SpaceX occurred in December 2015, one month after Blue Origin reached the same milestone, but following a sub-orbital flight.
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