SpaceX has been quietly working on Grasshopper, their reusable launch vehicle (RLV) technology demonstrator, as part of a long-term effort to develop a reusable version of their Falcon 9 rocket. Last week, some people noticed a new entry on the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s list of launches carried out under experimental permits: a flight by SpaceX’s Grasshopper vehicle on December 17 from its test site near McGregor, Texas. No other details about the flight were available.
Sunday night, SpaceX released a statement and videos of that third Grasshopper flight, the highest to date. According to SpaceX, Grasshopper—a Falcon 9 first stage with a single Merlin 1D engine and landing legs—flew to an altitude of 40 meters, landing successfully 29 seconds after liftoff. The previous two Grasshopper flights were much shorter and lower: its first flight flew 1.8 meters high and lasted just a few seconds, while its second, last month, flew to 5.4 meters.
The timing of the announcement was interesting: SpaceX posted the video Sunday evening, and a statement about the flight arrived in my inbox at 10 pm EST. SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk also publicized it in a series of tweets that evening, including one where he noted that the vehicle carried a “6 ft cowboy” (well, a mannequin of one) who had “no problemo” with the flight.
Grasshopper is part of a effort by the company to develop a reusable Falcon 9, and SpaceX said in a statement that “successively more sophisticated flights [are] expected over the next several months.” As for when that will lead to a reusable version of a Falcon 9, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell gave few clues when asked about it at a luncheon speech in Washington earlier this month. “I don’t want to guess when it’ll be ready for market, but there’s definitely no question that we want it to work,” she said.