Early science-fiction books almost universally portrayed rockets departing from a planet and landing on another (or back where they started from). There was no thought of abandoning almost all the equipment launched off a pad, leaving it to splash down uselessly into the oceans or be burned up on re-entry into the atmosphere. The harsh realities of early space flight made that necessary, of course, but it's always been a very wasteful business.
Elon Musk wants to change that. Flight Global reports:
One of the most ambitious development projects in spaceflight took a giant leap last month when SpaceX achieved a 29s flight to a height of 40m - and safely back to the launch pad - with its Grasshopper rocket, a bid to develop a fully reusable vertical take-off and vertical landing launch vehicle.
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SpaceX chief Elon Musk says Grasshopper is only the first in a series of projects that he hopes will result in 100% reusability for SpaceX vehicles. Speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London in November ... Musk said he hoped to be bringing back the first stage from SpaceX flights "in the next year or two", and promised "soon" to unveil a new version of his Dragon cargo or crew capsule capable of landing vertically, on legs.
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Musk added that his full-reusability timetable was "five to six years", though he confessed that "could be famous last words". Moreover, he said to the RAeS gathering, he expected that as Grasshopper testing continues "there will be a few craters along the way".
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Musk's dream of total reusability promises much when it comes to transforming the economics of ordinary Earth orbit spaceflight. As Musk told the RAeS, the cost of a rocket today is only about 0.3% propellant, with the rest thrown away; in the case of a $60 million Falcon 9 launch, that's less than $200,000 for gas and a lot of money ending up in the sea.
There's more at the link. Recommended reading.
Here's a video clip of SpaceX's latest, 29-second-long test flight of the Grasshopper. It rose 131 feet into the air, hovered, and successfully touched down again on the pad it had just left. A small step, to be sure, but one that had never before been accomplished . . . and, one hopes, a stepping-stone to much greater achievements in future.
Go SpaceX, and thank you, Elon Musk! If you get this right, we'll all owe you an incalculable debt.