SpaceX's Future Rocket Tech Takes Off

3...2...1...and lift-off! And then hover...aaaaand land again.

SpaceX's Dragon space capsule may have successfully latched on to the International Space Station and is even now whirling over our heads at thousands of miles an hour, but that doesn't mean the company has diverted attention away from its rocketing future. Elon Musk's private space company has just revealed information about a successful test flight of its Grasshopper rocket, which took place last week. Unlike the boom and thunder and headline-grabbing antics of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon, Grasshopper's an altogether weirder rocketship: It can hover.

Grasshopper's latest and most successful test fight took it to a maximum altitude of just 80 meters, but when it reached that height after lift-off it did something few other rockets can do and just hovered there on its engine power for just over 30 seconds before landing gently back on its launch pad. The vehicle is a research prototype which will be used to design future SpaceX rocket stages that will be able to fly back down out of the atmosphere and land safely so they can be reused. This is a trick that's not used in the Falcon 9 nor any of SpaceX's peers, and it may ultimately result in reduced launch costs for SpaceX's customers—who are already getting a very cheap deal.

Does the exciting commercial spaceflight future make you wish you were an astronaut? A space tourist? Will it excite kids into studying science as much as NASA's big-ticket missions?

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  • Rick Papo

    Elon Musk, at least, thinks that building a new rocket for every launch to be a big expense.  If the payload is expensive (as has been said already), the rocket itself may be relatively cheap.  But if the payload itself is not expensive stuff (space station supplies, fuel, air, water), then the cost of the rocket as a proportion of the mission cost is far higher . . . according to him 100 times higher.

    From where I sit, the cost of individual satellites would go way down if launch costs went down . . . because you wouldn't be trying so hard to make sure the satellite is worth the cost of the launch.

    It's not my site, but we talk about SpaceX over at

  • AussiePete

    Australia has supplied its Nulka anti-ship missile decor rocket to 130 Australian, US and Canadian warships for more than a decade...1,000 rounds have been sold...Nulka hovers and sends our electronic signals which lure Exocets etc from their intended target. Hovering is well understood within Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation and BAE Systems Australia.

  • Imagebuffet

    This isn't the first hovering rocket I've seen, but I'm sure it is by far the largest and most massive. I witnessed the maiden flight of DC-X "Delta Clipper," and I watched Armadillo Aerospace's rockets launch, hover and translate a few times.
    As impressive as this is, I think he is doing it wrong. Why balance an upright propane tank? Lay it on its side, where it will be more stable. I often think of the "Eagles" from Space 1999 as a very good design. I can envision a modified design that would be aerodynamic and elegant. But, then, I'm not sure that reusable rockets necessarily save any money. It depends on how expensive it is to make a rocket; extremely inexpensive rockets would not be worth spending the fuel that could be used launching payload. Payload is expensive; rockets are cheap.