The final frontier
Published: Monday, September 16, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 16, 2013 21:09
On July 21, 2011, National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Space Shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth after delivering supplies to the International Space Station. The space shuttle would never leave Earth’s surface again. NASA has officially shut down their shuttle program, using the funds and time spent repairing the outdated shuttle fleet to put more research into more efficient engines, rocket fuel and solutions for the International Space Station.
But don’t think this means us earthlings are all grounded for the time being. NASA’s slow (and planned) decline over the last several years has opened the doors to a new market: commercial space flight.
Entrepreneurs all over the country are coming up with innovative ways to explore and traverse space, and are challenging the government monopoly that was NASA. One such man is Elon Musk. Musk is a South African native who has studied at University of Pennsylvania and co-founded PayPal. He is also the founder of Tesla Motors and, most notably, SpaceX.
SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, is located in California and was the first commercial space corporation to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. On May 25, 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft delivered cargo to the space station and made history.
To cut down on the cost of manufacturing and designing such complicated and unique equipment, SpaceX tests, designs and produces much of their materials in house, and is therefore a mostly independent company. One of the ideals that makes SpaceX such a frontrunner in the private space races is to produce reusable spacecraft and cut the costs of replacements and repairs for return flights.
One such rocket is currently in the testing stages at SpaceX, and is by far one of the coolest things to happen to spaceflight in a while. Meet the Grasshopper. The Grasshopper is currently a technology demonstrator, meaning that the actual rockets being used right now are just to show off new technologies and won’t actually go into space, but future versions of this rocket probably will.
The Grasshopper is about 10-stories high, and is the first rocket to launch vertically, hover in the air and then return to the launch pad. Grasshopper can only hover about 1,066 feet (as of June), but the technology is there and it will improve. Controlling a vertical tube that’s over 100 feet tall is an impressive feat, and a rocket that can land itself with that kind of control is a huge step forward in the journey to reusable spacecraft.
The craft not only lands itself upright, but can also perform controlled lateral movements, allowing it to correct itself during launch or landing. If the Grasshopper’s technology becomes mainstream (or at least, viable for SpaceX), then spaceflight costs are going to decline significantly. Reusable spacecraft are truly the answer to many of the spaceflight dilemmas. Once missions into space can be done repeatedly, and without a fleet of constantly-reconstructed spacecrafts, launches will certainly become more common occurrences.
For the awesome video of the Grasshopper’s latest test flight, check out www.dinnertablescience.com.