Once again SpaceX flew their Grasshopper in Texas. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Twitter, the goal of the test was to determine if the rocket could perform “hard lateral deviation, stabilize & hover, rapid descent back to pad.” On August 13, 2013 the Grasshopper flew about 850 feet high and then moved sideways for about 350 feet before returning to the center of the pad. SpaceX announced that the test demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to perform aggressive steering maneuvers.
The Grasshopper test vehicle is derived from a standard version 1.0 Falcon 9 first stage with one Merlin engine (instead of the normal 9 that it would have if it were flying into space). It stands about 106 feet tall. Learning how to maneuver such a vehicle has not been easy.
The current version one Grasshopper will eventually be replaced with a version 1.1, which will be based on the new version 1.1 Falcon 9, which is taller and more powerful. The current Grasshopper has rigid landing struts. The next version of the Grasshopper will have struts that are folded against the rocket on takeoff and then extend when it is time to land: just like the actual flight ready version of the Falcon 9 will have–starting in September. On September 5, 2013 SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Canadian satellite into polar orbit from Vandenberg AFB. It will be the first launch of the new version 1.1 Falcon 9 with the upgraded and more powerful Merlin engines. SpaceX will also perform the first test of the first stage landing system on that flight; it will happen over water, not land. SpaceX anticipates that it will take them a few attempts before they get the system to work on actual orbital launches.
Here is a video that SpaceX released in the last few days which shows the way the new Falcon 9 will look, as well as what SpaceX is up to:
And this is their ultimate goal as to reusability:
If they are successful, this will significantly reduce the cost of spaceflight. And it should be noted that SpaceX developed these systems mostly with their own privately raised funds; since it’s founding in 2002, SpaceX has spent about 1 billion dollars. Had NASA been in charge of this program, it has been estimated (by NASA itself) that it would have cost them at least five times as much.
At this time SpaceX has contracts for about 40 launches. SpaceX explains that “Our launch manifest is populated by a diverse customer base, including space station resupply missions, commercial satellite launch missions, and US government science and national security missions.” A full list of their upcoming launches can be found here.
Some critics of the Grasshopper have pointed out that between 1993 and 1996 McDonnell-Douglas did something similar with their DC-X project (later taken over by NASA); however, after the test vehicle was damaged in a landing incident, the program was cancelled. Furthermore, the DC-X was a bit smaller than Grasshopper: 39 feet tall versus 106 feet tall; and DC-X had different goals. For further information on DC-X check out the Wikipedia article: DC-X. And I’m not sure what point the critics are trying to make by showing that similar things have happened before.