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SpaceX launches rocket from NASA pad in Florida, completes relanding

Reuters logo Reuters 2/19/2017 Irene Klotz

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - A SpaceX Falcon rocket blasted off on Sunday from a Florida launch pad once used to send NASA astronauts to the moon, a step forward for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and his company's goal of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

The 229-foot tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 soared off a seaside launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center at 9:39 a.m. ET (1439 GMT) carrying a Dragon cargo ship bound for the station.

Nine minutes after blastoff, the main section of the rocket flew back to a landing pad at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the eighth successful touchdown for Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

"Baby came back," Musk wrote on Twitter, celebrating the re-landing, which came a day after SpaceX decided to delay the mission 13 seconds before launch due to concerns about the steering system in the rocket's upper stage, the company said.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is prepared for another launch attempt for a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 18, 2017. Launch is scheduled for February 19. © REUTERS/Joe Skipper A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is prepared for another launch attempt for a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 18, 2017. Launch is scheduled for February 19.

Sunday's launch was the first for SpaceX from Launch Complex 39A, originally built for the 1960s-era Apollo moon program and later repurposed for the space shuttles.

The pad was last used for the final space shuttle launch in 2011. In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease to use pad and has spent millions remodeling it.

The launch was also SpaceX's first from Florida since an accident in September heavily damaged what had been the company's prime site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of the NASA spaceport.

Last month, SpaceX resumed flying its Falcon 9 rockets using a second launch pad in California, where the first stage of the rocket also nailed its re-landing.

The company plans to reuse the rockets, slashing costs and allowing it to offer reduced pricing.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which hired SpaceX to fly cargo to the station after the shuttle program ended, closely monitored the launch to learn more about the company's operations before it clears the company to fly NASA astronauts on SpaceX rockets.

SpaceX and Boeing Co are scheduled to begin flying crew to the station by the end of 2018. A Government Accountability Office report last week said both companies face technical hurdles that likely will delay their programs.

SpaceX aims to have the Florida launchpad damaged in last year's explosion up and running by this summer.

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Alan Crosby)

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