Monday, October 14, 2013
With all the attention that Tesla Motors gets, it's sometimes easy to forget that Elon Musk has other companies. But a recent update to SpaceX's YouTube channel showed that one of Musk's other big businesses is still hard at work.
The new video shows Grasshopper, SpaceX's re-usable rocket, setting a height record for that model, soaring 744 meters above the arid landscape of Texas.
But it's not the rocket's altitude that should get people excited, said Daniel Erwin, a professor of astronautical engineering at the University of Southern California. "It reached less than a mile in height," he told ABC News. "But this isn't really an altitude test as much as it is testing the ability to land."
The video shows the Grasshopper making a controlled landing to the same spot it launched from. That ability to land is key, since Grasshopper is engineered to be used multiple times.
SpaceX's rocket isn't the first piece of re-usable space hardware. NASA's Space Shuttle debuted in 1982 and lasted for nearly three decades of service, though Erwin is hesitant to call it truly reusable. "It had to be torn down and its parts re-machined each time," he said. "It was almost worse than building something from scratch."
NASA's activity may be on hold due to the government shutdown, but that doesn't mean that there won't be American space launches. "I think most people think that spaceflight is mostly a government project, but it hasn't been that way for the past decade," said Erwin. "A large number of launches don't have any government involvement except for coordination with the FAA."
While Grasshopper has performed well on tests, it is not yet ready to be used in SpaceX missions to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. According to SpaceX's Facebook page, last week's launch is also the last scheduled test for Grasshopper for the near future. SpaceX will instead test the F9R, a different type of re-usable space vehicle.
Despite SpaceX's decision to stop test launches with Grasshopper, researchers such as Erwin are optimistic about Musk and his company taking on these types of ambitious spacecraft projects.
"Elon has demonstrated that he and his company can get things done that people said couldn't be done," said Erwin. "We're all kind of excited, but of course we'll wait and see how it pans out."