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SpaceX's Grasshopper: Reusable Rocket Prototype

On Oct. 7, 2013, SpaceX's Grasshopper rocket climbed 2,441 feet (744 meters) into the air before safely landing back on its launch pad in McGregor, Texas.
On Oct. 7, 2013, SpaceX's Grasshopper rocket climbed 2,441 feet (744 meters) into the air before safely landing back on its launch pad in McGregor, Texas.
Credit: SpaceX

Grasshopper was a reusable vertical-takeoff-and-landing rocket prototype tested by the company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in preparation for more ambitious launches. After progressively higher hops and pinpoint landings in two years, SpaceX wrapped up the program in 2013 to move resources into the Falcon 9R rocket that is now being put through its own set of flight tests.

Grasshopper was the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9, which the company still uses today for the Dragon spacecraft flights to the station. Test flights ran between 2012 and 2013 and were successful, according to SpaceX.

First announced in September 2011, Grasshopper is one piece of SpaceX's desire to make a fully reusable system that will fly cargo and people to and from space. Traditionally, rockets have been considered "throwaway" items, with few exceptions (such as the space shuttle's external solid rocket boosters.)

SpaceX's vision then included fly-back first and second stages on the rocket as well as a spacecraft that can land on land. (The Dragon spacecraft currently lands on the water, similar to how the Apollo spacecraft used to do.)

"We will see if this works," SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk said when announcing the project. "And if it does work, it'll be pretty huge."

SpaceX's Reusable Grasshopper soars past 1,066 feet (325 meters) in June 14, 2013 test flight.
SpaceX's reusable Grasshopper rocket prototype rises skyward from its McGregor, Texas launch pad during a June 14, 2013 test flight that reached 1,066 feet (325 meters) before descending back to Earth. This still was taken from a video recorded by a small unmanned hexacopter.
Credit: SpaceX

The six-foot flight

The first test flight of the rocket took place Sept. 21, 2012, when Grasshopper made a quick six-foot (1.8-meter) jump up and down at SpaceX's test facility in McGregor, Texas. With each subsequent flight, the company then tried to shoot a bit higher or do something different.

The next test in November saw the rocket go about 18 feet (5.5 m) in the air, and then a big test in December saw the rocket soar more than 130 feet (39.6 m) high.

Over several test flights in 2013, Grasshopper demonstrated an ability to fight back against wind gusts, as well as to move sideways in the air to its target. It also flew several hundred feet high on a few occasions. The company filmed the rocket flights from the air using autonomous aircraft, providing high-definition views that it uploaded to the Web for sharing.

Among Grasshopper's notable flights was a jump in April 2013 that saw the 10-story vehicle fly 820 feet (250 m) high. In June 2013, Grasshopper leaped 1,066 feet (325 m) and made a near-perfect landing. A subsequent flight test in August included a 100-foot lateral or sideways maneuver before the rocket touched down safely on the ground.

The program capped off Oct. 7, 2013, when the rocket flew 2,441 feet (744 m) into the air, making a flawless takeoff and landing in a flight that lasted about 79 seconds. SpaceX then decided to retire the prototype in favor of using the personnel and money for other programs, notably the F9R rocket.

'Clearly people were doing something silly'

Musk also delivered comments at the All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., that same year, in May 2013, indicating that SpaceX's production shows that the rocket first stage is about three-quarters the price of a launch. If the rocket is reusable, this would save substantially on launch costs, Musk said.

He added that fuel accounts for 0.3 percent of the total cost, and construction about 2 percent. (The Falcon 9's total cost is $60 million.) Bearing those totals in mind, Musk criticized other manufacturers: "Clearly people were doing something silly in how they put those materials together. By eliminating those foolish things, we were able to make a rocket for much less."

In 2014, SpaceX then moved toward flights of its F9R ("R" stands for reusable) rocket, which soared 820 feet (250 m) high in a flight in April and then 3,300 feet (1,000 m) the following month. Additionally, the company made a world-first controlled splashdown of the first stage of Falcon 9 on April 18, during a Dragon spacecraft resupply run to the International Space Station.

Musk's ultimate goal is to establish a colony on Mars by bringing the cost of spaceflight down as much as he can. Launch costs are considered one of the toughest things to overcome, since it takes a lot of fuel and velocity for a rocket to fight against Earth's gravity to bring items into space.

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