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Reusable rocket prototype almost ready for first liftoff

Posted: July 9, 2012

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SpaceX's Grasshopper testbed for a reusable rocket booster could fly soon from the company's Texas test facility on a short hop designed to demonstrate its ability to take off and land under thrust on a launch pad.

SpaceX's Grasshopper vehicle in McGregor, Texas. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
The Grasshopper test vehicle stands 106 feet tall, and its initial flights will reach 240 feet and last about 45 seconds to check the design of the rocket's landing system.

SpaceX technicians added four steel landing legs and a support structure to a qualified Falcon 9 rocket first stage. The Grasshopper program is the first step in achieving SpaceX's goal of developing a reusable booster, which would require the rocket's first stage to fly back to a landing pad at or near the launch site.

SpaceX's concept calls for the first stage to descend and land vertically, using rocket thrust to settle to a soft touchdown.

Speaking in June at the company's test facility in McGregor, Texas, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said the Grasshopper program was on the verge of its first flight.

"We're hoping to do short hops at some point in the next couple of months, and then in terms of higher flights, I'm hopefully we can go supersonic before the end of the year," Musk said. "That's not a prediction. That's an aspiration."

SpaceX has constructed a half-acre concrete launch facility in McGregor, and the Grasshopper rocket is already standing on the pad, outfitted with four insect-like silver landing legs.

Grasshopper pictured with the SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft flying overhead on its May mission to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX
The Grasshopper's test flights will be powered by a single Merlin 1D engine, burning kerosene and liquid oxygen to generate a maximum thrust of 122,000 pounds.

Subsequent flights will climb higher and travel faster than the first launch, reaching up to 11,500 feet and lasting approximately 160 seconds, according to a draft environmental assessment document released by the Federal Aviation Administration in September 2011.

SpaceX has not disclosed other details on the Grasshopper launch plans, but Musk said some high-altitude tests may be staged from White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

The company has not said when a vertical landing attempt could be made on a real space launch, but Musk believes offering a viable reusable rocket, coupled with simple operations and quick turnaround, will bring on drastic reductions in launch prices.

"If one can figure out how to effectively reuse the rockets just like an airplane, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred," Musk said. "A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough that is needed to revolutionize access to space."