SpaceX Prototype Reusable Rocket Reaches Height of 40 Meters in Test Flight

The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 27 2012 8:00 AM

A Grasshopper’s Leap

Test flight of the SpaceX Grasshopper rocket
The SpaceX Grasshopper takes flight. Click to tsiolkovskenate.

Image credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

On Dec. 24, 2012, the private space exploration company SpaceX gave its prototype Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing (VTVL) rocket called Grasshopper a chance to make a small hop: 40 meters straight up. During the test Grasshopper went up, hovered, and landed back on its tail successfully. Watch the test—and turn your speakers up for maximum effect!

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

That is so cool! It stayed aloft for a total of 29 seconds.


Grasshopper is actually the rocket tank from the first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 equipped with a single engine and landing legs. The idea is to be able to reuse rockets instead of dropping the used parts into the ocean when they’re done boosting the payload. The Space Shuttle did this with the solid rocket boosters, which fell into the Atlantic where they were recovered by boat. In the case of the Shuttle the financial savings of reusing the SRBs versus just building new ones was debatable. However, rocket design has improved since the SRBs were first built, and it’s possible reuse can save money as well as time.

Closeup of the Grasshopper showing its passenger: a mannequin.
I don't think that OSHA would approve of this.

Image credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

This test of the Grasshopper was important because it used what’s called “closed loop thrust vector and throttle control”, which means the rocket engine was automatically pointed and thrust throttled as needed to compensate for things like changes in wind and fuel remaining (as the rocket burns fuel it gets lighter, so less thrust is needed to hover).

If you look carefully on the right hand side of the rocket in the picture above, you may notice what looks like a person riding on the landing leg platform. That's actually a cowboy mannequin the folks at SpaceX placed there as a lark. Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, tweeted about it during the test flight. I suspect Wil Wheaton had something to do with this.

On Nov. 1, 2012, a test of Grasshopper had it going up less than 10 meters, so this test was pushing it harder. SpaceX plans on ramping up tests to the point where Grasshopper is traveling supersonically, to better mimic actual flight conditions of an orbital launch.

Other rocket companies have done similar tests, such as Armadillo Aerospace and Blue Origin. The idea is not new—the Apollo Lunar Modules were VTVL, after all. With improvements in onboard computers and mechanical techniques, though, the technology has come a long way. I’ll be very interested to see where this goes.

And a note: I am still hearing people grumbling that crewed space flight in the United States is dead with the Shuttle. That is simply ridiculous; they’re dead wrong. In fact, I’m excited for the next few years of putting humans into space. NASA is working on their Space Launch System (which just passed a major technology review), and there are several private companies working on taking people into space, into orbit, and beyond.

The future of humans in space looks pretty good to me right now. And I have a hope—a realistic one—that we’ll see a human walking on the Moon in the next fifteen to twenty years. Possibly sooner. We’ll see, but the idea is no longer a fantasy. It’ll be reality sooner or later. I’m hoping sooner.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.