In May of this year, SpaceX completed the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demo for NASA showing they could take on the job of cargo taxi to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. In October, SpaceX celebrated the successful launch and return of its first of twelve contracted Commercial Resupply Service missions to the ISS. SpaceX is not only the first private company to achieve this goal but it’s doing so at a 90% cost reduction to the taxpayer. SpaceX is making money and NASA is saving money. Job well done; mission accomplished. Not quite. SpaceX is all about innovation.The same spacecraft they use to take cargo, called the Dragon, can be easily transformed to hold up to seven astronauts. It’s not quite as simple as putting up and down the seats on a minivan but you get the idea. They are in the running, against Boeing, for another contract with NASA to be the taxi service to the ISS for astronauts. It seems their chances are good since they are already using the Dragon and can learn from each mission while prepping to win the astronaut transport contract. Well, cool, that is innovative. Good luck SpaceX, we wish you well. Not quite.
It’s not enough to save 90% and have a spacecraft design that can easily transform between cargo and people. SpaceX is developing their fleet of rockets and spacecrafts to be “fully and rapidly” reusable. Not splash down in the ocean, retrieve it with a crane on a boat reusable. Setting down on the launch pad with vertical landing gear, refuel, and take off again reusable. The idea is to make space flight as common as airplane travel.
Enter the Grasshopper project. SpaceX has been doing test hops with the 10-story high vertical takeoff and landing vehicle (VTVL) at their rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. Grasshopper consists of a Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure. The Grasshopper has made three hops so far. The first on, September 21, 2012, was a 6-foot test flight and the second, on November 1st, Grasshopper lifted about 2-stories off the ground, hovered, and touched back down safely. On December 17th is made an epic 12-story hop and hover.
SpaceX engineers are testing technology where the first and stages will reignite their engine(s), re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, deploy landing legs, and land on the launch pad. The future version of the Dragon spacecraft will also have landing legs. Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer at SpaceX, noted at a recent talk at the Royal Aeronautical Society the company expects they will be able to bring back the first stage of the Falcon 9 in 2-3 years and anticipate being fully reusable at all stages and the Dragon in 5-6 years. Get a better idea of SpaceX’s plan for reusing by watching the simulation video.