There has never been a science fiction movie or TV show explaining the one overwhelming obstacle we face today to a spacefaring future: The impractical economics of having to build an entirely new rocket for every single flight. And basically the aerospace industry is happy to leave that minor technical detail generally unknown, because the way the government contracts rocket flights, their absolute profit actually increases the more expensive their rocket flights are - so for decades Big Aerospace and the big institutional purchasers of space launches (primarily the Air Force and intelligence agencies) have been in a perverse, corrupt arms race to deliver minimum value at maximum cost to taxpayers. SpaceX has spent the last decade challenging both, and rather successfully - which is why its CEO (and also the guy behind Tesla Motors) Elon Musk doesn't have a lot of friends in politics compared to his competitors.
Watch the video below: It's not a simulation. It's a rocket the height of a high-rise apartment building, and they've flown it six times in a year to increasing altitudes without (as far as I know) a single dime of direct public funding, a guarantee of return by any institution, or even revenue-generating operations as of yet - it's simply Elon Musk and SpaceX's far-sighted investment in overcoming the reason we're not already all zooming around in space, and it's working:
I've blogged about previous, humbler flights of the Grasshopper, so if you aren't familiar with the subject, you can get caught up here with other videos and photos:
It's basically a one-tank, one-engine version of the first stage of the commercial rocket they currently fly to space - simplified so that they can tweak and evolve things for ever better economics, manufacturability, and reliability. And what they've already learned hasn't gone to waste: They've been testing some of the resulting new technologies on full-up nine-engine test stands lately, disturbing the peace for miles around with some of the most powerful rocket engines ever built:
They've been having a lot of healthy failure in the testing process too, burning through components and causing all sorts of aborts, but that's the beauty of an organization with tons of money, zero investor pressure (because Elon Musk has tight ownership and control), and absolute zero-sum commitment to achieving a spacefaring future for humanity: Failures on the ground can only be good - they just fix it until it works before the ultimate flight. What they're specifically preparing for is a flight currently scheduled for September where they fly the Falcon 9 v. 1.1, which is a much more powerful, efficient, and upgraded version of their current spaceflight hardware, and will also be used to do some initial flight testing of reusable components on the first stage. Specifically, they're going to try to reignite it after stage separation so that it hits the water more softly, allowing them to recover it.
The goal isn't to recover intact stages from the water and reuse them, but to perfect the process of relighting after stage separation so that ultimately they can stick extendable landing legs on the thing and just land it right back on the launch pad. Here is a first-stage telescoping landing leg undergoing initial development:
A number of additional milestones will be undertaken by the September flight in addition to the first flight of the 1.1:
1. Inauguration of the SpaceX launch facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The website for Vandenberg says the launch range is closed to the public, so unless you can get press credentials you wouldn't be able to see the launch up close, but you might be able to see something from a distance.
2. First flight of a SpaceX payload fairing. Up until now all of their launches have been to deliver the Dragon space capsule along with piggyback payloads, but the upcoming flight would be the first purely commercial satellite launch for SpaceX, and thus the first use of the fairing - a kind of shell that splits in half in space to expose the payload. Dragon flights have a different type of shell: The Dragon slips out backwards and launches off to the side. This is the new satellite fairing during a test:
You can see the engineering involved in the test based on the cables attached to the fairing halves at strategic points, simulating the weightless environment. They actually had a problem with the setup when they found out it wasn't adequately simulating what it was supposed to, but that was only a temporary hiccup that they were able to fix relatively simply, according to reports.
3. As mentioned, the first-stage relight test after stage separation. They've said they expect that test to fail and not be able to recover anything the first time around, so it's mostly a "let's try it and see what happens" sort of thing. Isn't it refreshing to have a large organization with an attitude like that?
At some point after the 1.1 launch, either late this year or early next (probably the latter), they intend to strap three 1.1 first stages together and inaugurate the Falcon Heavy: Which is designed to be the third most powerful rocket in history after Saturn V and Energia - the Soviet rocket that was supposed to launch their copy of the Space Shuttle, and only flew twice. Falcon Heavy is, if sporadic reports are to be understood, to be the launch vehicle for what SpaceX refers to as MCT: The Mars Colonial Transport. I'm not joking. They're not being cute with that. It's called the Mars Colonial Transport, its purpose is what it sounds like, and they've said they intend to build it. There are a lot of steps between here and there, but damn.
Another expected milestone this year is the unveiling of Dragon 2, which SpaceX has said would look radically different from the current Dragon, have its own landing rockets, and be designed almost from scratch because they were being conservative with the original Dragon by hewing closely to 1960s heritage technology and strategies. Dragon 2 would be the crewed version of Dragon competing for astronaut transport contracts to the International Space Station, and would also be used for independent commercial flights both crewed and uncrewed. They still have to do pad abort tests and launch abort tests before they have a first launch, but they've already completed some initial review milestones toward designing their testing program toward a target launch in 2015.
The managers of the European Ariane rocket have been concerned about the commercial impact of the rise of SpaceX on their business, and they've initiated planning changes that - for a bureaucracy of their size and international scope - is something akin to desperate scrambling. This is a major change of pace given that the only other major US rocket launch company, United Launch Alliance, has no business whatsoever from overseas and is basically sustained entirely by monopoly contracts from the US government. It's been fun watching the dinosaurs slowly realize that there's an asteroid approaching and its name is SpaceX. It'll only get more fun as time goes on.
If you're not excited about this, consult a thyroid specialist immediately - it may be a symptom of a more serious condition.
8:42 PM PT: I've probably shown this before, but this is the 9-engine test stand seen in two of the above videos, either just as the engines are being ignited or just as they're cutting off:
Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 2:21 AM PT: The inaugural 1.1 flight and opening of the Vandenberg launch site is scheduled for September 5th, and reportedly they've already completed the core technology development and are now flight-qualifying the specific stages they've built for the launch. Since it's such a drastic versioning, and the launch site itself is a brand new facility they just built at Vandenberg AFB, delays have already occurred (it was originally supposed to have launched last month) and are very likely to occur again - but it's more than worth the wait.
Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 3:25 AM PT: The thing about SpaceX that makes it so promising beyond what it's already done and in the process of doing is that its work force is so young. You just don't see that if you look at NASA mission control, or Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, etc. You don't even see it so much at the entrepreneurial space companies, because they mostly poached from NASA. SpaceX, however, stole its talent from Silicon Valley.