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Reused SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket makes history with third launch and landing

For decades, most big boosters were used just once. Now, Elon Musk has launched the same one three times.

For the first time, a single orbital-class rocket booster has been used for three missions, pushing a payload into space and then returning safely to Earth each time.

A SpaceX Block 5 Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 10:34 a.m. PT Monday. About seven minutes later, the first stage landed on the company's drone ship, called Just Read the Instructions and stationed in the Pacific Ocean. 

A Falcon 9 launches to orbit for an unprecedented third time.

Video capture by Eric Mack/CNET

The same booster was used in the first Block 5 launch (the final version of the Falcon 9 designed to fly up to 100 times) in May and then again in August.

Reusing rockets is key to Elon Musk's vision of cheaper, more rapid launches to orbit.

This particular mission also pushed an unprecedented number of small satellites to space for a US-based rocket. The upper stage of the Falcon 9 is set to deploy a total of 64 cubesats and smallsats representing 34 different organizations and 17 countries. The ride share was put together by Spaceflight Industries, which purchased all the room on the rocket from SpaceX to resell for the mission it calls SSO-A SmallSat Express.

Now playing: Watch this: SpaceX's next rocket could be reused 100 times

Just under eight minutes after blastoff the lower half of the Falcon 9, stained with soot from its three launches, made a perfect landing in the middle of the target on the drone ship. 

After the launch, Musk tweeted that the two pieces of the fairing missed the net, but landed nearby in the ocean. He says the "plan is to dry them out and launch again. Nothing wrong with a little swim." However, on a call with reporters later, a SpaceX spokesperson said the company will first make sure a little dip in salt water has no negative effects on the used parts.

First published Dec. 3, 11:17 a.m. PT. 
Update, 4:17 p.m. PT: Adds information on the state of the fairing halves. 

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