Grasshopper is SpaceX‘s reusable rocket. In a test flight last week at the company’s McGregor, TX proving grounds, the 10-story machine reached the height of a 12-story building before settling back to the launch pad on a jet of flame.
As science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle has pointed out, it’s the way God and his fellow sf writer Robert Heinlein intended rockets to land.
Doesn’t that majestic lift skyward, the gentle landing, the roar of the rocket engine get your pulse going? What’s particularly exciting to me is the lack of infrastructure around the thing. It’s just a concrete launch and landing pad. No gantries, no umbilicals, just the naked sky around it. Like an airplane taking off and landing. This scene could have been in any science fiction movie or novel of the 1940s or 1950s, except it’s real. You can just imagine a ladder or jetway (rocketway?) loading passengers at the top as the ship releases steam from its LOX tanks in the minutes before flight.
It doesn’t just look cool as hell, it also signals a potential giant leap for spaceflight. Vertical takeoff/vertical landing rockets could be the key to realizing the future envisioned in those old novels by Heinlein and others. These days, rockets heading to orbit self-destruct on the way up. Imagine throwing away a Boeing 747 every time you want to cross the Atlantic, along with the corresponding cost, and you’ll have an idea of why science fiction has remained science fiction.
But now SpaceX proposes to have each stage of its rockets fly itself back to the launch pad instead of simply hurdling itself to its doom. Back at the spaceport, the stages would be be refueled and reunited to fly again.
With such reusable vehicles, we’re looking at amortizing the cost of each trip to orbit and beyond over multiple flights instead of just the one. Heinlein would be ever so pleased. But also at least a little grumpy at how long this has taken.