SpaceX successfully launched a critical space station docking port for astronauts early Monday, along with a DNA decoder for high-flying genetic research. As an extra treat, the company brought its leftover first-stage booster back to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a vertical touchdown—only the second such land landing for an orbital mission, which will allow the booster to fly again to shave launch costs. Twin sonic booms rocked the moonlit night, old shuttle landing-style. "A really good day," observes SpaceX's VP of flight reliability. The cosmic double-header got underway as the unmanned Falcon rocket streaked upward through the darkness, carrying 5,000 pounds of food, experiments, and equipment for the International Space Station, soaring over the North Atlantic at liftoff.
It was SpaceX's second shot at delivering a new-style docking port for NASA. The last one went up in smoke over the Atlantic in June 2015; another port—cobbled together from spare parts—will replace it. NASA needs this new docking setup at the space station before Americans can fly there in crew capsules set to debut next year. SpaceX is building astronaut-worthy versions of its Dragon cargo ships, while Boeing—which makes these docking ports—is working on a crew capsule called Starliner. The pair would dock to this ring, which two American astronauts will hook up during a spacewalk in August, and the other due to fly in a year. The Dragon and its latest shipment are due Wednesday at the ISS. A Russian supply ship is due Monday night. (Read more SpaceX stories.)