SpaceX Grasshopper Climbs Another Step on the Stairway to the Heavens

Video : SpaceX Grasshopper performs another test flight, reaching a peak altitude of 820 feet, tripling its previous public record and holding  station in high winds.

Looking back from some future point in time, when the humanity has established itself as a multi planet species, historians are going question  just why it was that in the post Shuttle era,  NASA, the Air Force and the American aerospace establishment  lost all interest in pursuing reusable launch technology, even as the cost of space launch services began to escalate beyond reason.  That it would occur in at the same time an entirely different group of stakeholders,   NewSpace companies, began making rapid progress in laying the foundation for a revolution in RLV systems will be all the more puzzling.

The revolution has been a long time coming, waiting on the right spark for almost 50 years.  And that’s the thing.   That one clarifying moment which says we can do this, we can begin to open up the space frontier for real, and for good,  does not require a breakthrough in propulsion systems, or radical evolution in materials technology to enable the mass fractions of single stage to orbit.  Instead, it requires no more, and no less, than a fully recoverable and reusable first stage.  Fortunately, it  does not even need to be “rapidly reusable,”  at least not first.

The only thing required to fundamentally change the perception, and the reality of how we access space, is a reusable first stage whose recovery and refurbishment costs are marginally lower than the cost of a new first stage core produced by  its closest economic competitor.  While neither the major commercial satellite operators, and most certainly not the military, is going to be a rush to place  high value payloads on a launch vehicle with a “used” first stage core when a new one is readily available at a price point which is already accepted,  somebody else will.

Whether it is NASA finding new ways to work with private industries, as it is doing with Bigelow Aerospace,  another  NewSpace company willing to take a chance,  or one of a growing number of  sovereign states seeking to develop its own indigenous satellite but needing a break on launch costs, the customer is out there, waiting.

Once that moment has come,  and the first commercial mission with a reusable first stage is in the history books,  everything else becomes a matter of modest, sequential improvements.  For the existing launch establishments, comfortable in a world fairly well-ordered for the last several decades, which have made the decision sit this one out, it might just be too late.  The barbarians will already be at the gates.  For the moment, they may still be beyond the furthest hill,  but that moment will not last forever.  If you were to look beyond the immediate horizon to the skies over Texas, it is readily apparent, they are coming.

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5 Comments on "SpaceX Grasshopper Climbs Another Step on the Stairway to the Heavens"

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  1. Coastal Ron says:

    The author said:

    “…does not require a breakthrough in propulsion systems, or radical evolution in materials technology to enable the mass fractions of single stage to orbit.”

    I’m as enthusiastic as you are about this, but let’s remember that SpaceX has not proved out the whole reusable system yet. So far they are flying a reusable lander in short hops, but they have not been able to test out their in-flight survivability and landing sequence. That may happen on their next flight, but Musk has been very clear that they may dig a few holes the ground on their way to proving whether the whole shebang is going to be doable. And he admits it still may not.

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but we should all avoid premature irrational exuberance.

    • Perhaps I should have been a little more specific. While the progress being demontrated by Grasshopper is encouraging, the article was meant to address the concept of first stage RLV’s in general, wherever they may be found. SpaceX just happened to provide the most immediate example.

  2. Ken Del Piero says:

    Well done! To those who understand the enormous strategic consequences, you’re “preaching to the choir.” To most of the others, apparently, they won’t get it until it is, as you say, history. But such a well-written article may help a few people switch camps.

    Whether it’s SpaceX, Blue Origin, or someone else, if they aren’t shut down by some established interest, we are about to watch history.

  3. Bill Hensley says:

    You express surprise that it would be new startups that make the leap to economical reuse, but that is how disruptive change usually happens. The existing companies have a different hand to play. And the typical response is not rolling over and playing dead. You simply buy out the successful upstart and incorporate their tech into your own offerings. The wrinkle in this situation is that Musk may be unusually resistant to selling. But if XCOR, Masten or someone else like them starts making a lot of money that’s probably what will happen. Didn’t Scaled get bought by Northrup Grumman?

    • Yes, Northrup Grumman bought Scaled Composites, and to your point, XCOR has been working with ULA on an alternate upper stage engine to RL-10, so it is not hard at all to envision a number of NewSpace companies being acquired by primes. But, in the end it still only takes one to change the paradigm, and establish first stage reusability as the new norm, at which point it may not matter so much whose name is on the side of the booster. Until it starts all over again.

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