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Previous flights of the Grasshopper were already awesome, but now they're starting to seriously play around with this rocket and make it look easy.  They're basically throwing around something the size of a building like a toy and landing it like it's no big deal.  The most recent flight had the Grasshopper moving laterally away from the pad as it ascends, then coming back to the pad.  There is nothing else this size on Earth that can perform these kind of maneuvers.  You'll want to go HD resolution and Full Screen on this one:


So it seems they're really starting to push the envelope with the current Grasshopper, and statements that have been made in the past suggest they might just keep pushing until they crash it.  This is the first prototype after all, and will reportedly be followed up with a 9-engine version that fully simulates the first stage of the new Falcon 9-R.  The Grasshopper 2 (not an official name, as far as I know) would supposedly be flown out of Spaceport America in New Mexico due to less FAA red tape than continuing to fly out of the SpaceX test facility in MacGregor, TX.

The rocket in the above video is the exact same one in every flight of the Grasshopper to date, as far as I know - a fully and rapidly reusable rocket.  The holy grail of spaceflight, at least on the small scale of flying a few hundred meters.  So what remains is scaling up to the rigors of an actual space launch.  Fortunately one of the most effective aspects of SpaceX as a company is the level of communication and feedback among the diverse teams, so whatever is being learned by the Grasshopper team is undoubtedly being learned simultaneously by the orbital rocket teams and vice versa.

To say that SpaceX has a lot on its plate would be an understatement for the history books.  They're putting the finishing touches on a new space launch facility at Vandenberg, getting the 9-R ready for flight in September - a radical upgrade to the Falcon 9 so drastic it qualifies as a new rocket unto itself, working toward the Falcon Heavy capable of delivering payloads and people to Mars that is intended to be flown early next year, working toward the Dragon 2 that is supposedly radically more advanced than the current Dragon and is said to look very different, and those are just the broadstrokes of what is going on.  With every year that passes, SpaceX seems to move two years ahead of its competition.  It's heady stuff, and imagining where they'll be in five or ten years is dizzying.

SpaceX basically is the 21st century Apollo program, and their level of progress is following an analogous timescale via sheer synergy with a small fraction of the financial resources.  The US went from the captured material and personnel of the German V2 program after WW2 to walking on the Moon in 25 years, which is about the same timeline Elon Musk envisions for human Mars missions dating from the beginning of the company in 2002.  Current plans call for them to launch astronauts in the 2015 timeframe, which would also be in line with the analogy since it was 16 years or so between the end of WW2 and the Shepard flight and 13 years for SpaceX if they meet the goal.  

Obviously the analogy is imperfect, for many reasons, but the significance of SpaceX is increasingly the same as Apollo and the learning curve much steeper than anything else going on in the world today.  Its triumphs are increasingly recognized as triumphs for humanity in general and the United States specifically.  And the beautiful part is that it's not tainted with the dark sociopolitical forces that the First Space Age was - while SpaceX is more than willing to launch US military payloads, and is in fact having to fight to get them despite already offering far better prices than anyone else, their technology is not designed specifically to serve military purposes.

NASA was originally a civilian beard for military programs that was so ironically successful it redefined the entire self-image of this nation, while SpaceX from its inception has been driven by benevolent purpose.  Its rockets are just a transportation platform, not weapon delivery systems occasionally given non-lethal tasks for publicity.  SpaceX is what NASA wishes it could be, if it were free to operate without being constantly undermined by Congress and its budgets poached from every side.  

They think as NASA would think if it were not denounced by every well-meaning moron who thinks the fraction of a percent of the US budget that goes to NASA is the reason schools lack textbooks, or every petty sociopath whose stomach churns at the thought of their taxpayer money advancing mankind.  If it didn't have its missions dictated to it by its own contractors because they're the ones with the political juice while the scientists, engineers, and the inspired public are just along for the ride.  When there even is a ride.

I hope that when, not if, SpaceX has achieved everything it set out to achieve; when access to space is affordable, safe, and genuinely routine; when people are walking on Mars because of their brilliance and vision; when all that's left is just to do it more, and go farther, and go faster, and go cheaper; I would hope that Elon Musk creates a nonprofit foundation committed to his vision for humanity's future in space and put the majority share of the company under its perpetual control.  That way the momentum and purity of the SpaceX mission would never be lost.  We could have a real and perpetual space program safe from the ravages of both political corruption and corporate degeneracy.

Anyway, I've rambled on much longer than I intended.  Just wanted to show that Grasshopper flight.

Originally posted to Troubadour on Wed Aug 14, 2013 at 07:25 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and Astro Kos.

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