The Spacex Grasshopper will be used to test reusable vertical takeoff and landing flight regimes, and will consist of a Falcon 9 first stage powered by a single Merlin 1D engine, and equipped with a landing structure comprised of four steel legs. The proposed range of testing is relatively modest, lasting three years and beginning with a series of flights to 75 meters (240 feet). It culminates with flights to a maximum altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet). By contrast, a recently failed Blue Origin test vehicle was lost at 13,700 meters (45,000 feet) while traveling at Mach 1.2. The key difference, however, is that as a video released in concert with Musk’s speech makes clear, the purpose of the Grasshopper program is to develop a tail-first, rocket-powered vertical landing technique for both stages of an already flight proven vehicle, the Falcon 9.
It will not be easy. Achieving reusability is, as Elon Musk succinctly observes, “super damn hard.”
The Falcon 9 flight profile causes it to hit the atmosphere in a “belly flop” position severely damaging the first stage.
If SpaceX can perfect the first stage recovery technique, the next step is returning the second stage safely from orbit, a more demanding task given the much greater reentry speeds and resulting heat that will need to be managed. To address this, the SpaceX video shows reentry achieved by firing an extendable engine and the addition of a blunt heat shield at the top of the second stage, followed by a powered landing via several small dedicated thrusters on the perimeter of the base. While still challenging, SpaceX stands to benefit from considerable commonality between its first and second stages, as well as experience already gained from developing the reusable heat shield that allowed it to successfully recover the Dragon capsule on the company’s first attempt.
If SpaceX does in fact succeed, then the key to that success most likely lies in the very unique corporate culture and the deliberate manner in which they have aligned their business approach to their corporate goals. SpaceX is following a business plan that will allow it to pursue reusability through the normal course of its operations in the form of a parallel development effort. So long as the company is able to book commercial launches, it will be able to sequentially test the components required to reach its goal without interfering with market activity, and with its customers, in fact, paying for much of the effort.
This fortunate situation is a direct result of two factors. First, SpaceX’s initial decision to enter the market with a simple vehicle powered by a reusable engine of its own design, which was robust enough to at least allow the possibility of an upgrade to reusability. This conservative approach allowed SpaceX to debut as the lowest cost player in the market with a launch vehicle likely to succeed on both a financial and technical basis. The second factor is the absolute refusal to innovate on the part of its rivals. While it may take a number of years to even get an expended first stage in a position to fly back to the launch site, it is that lack of cost-effective competition in the domestic market that is likely to grant SpaceX those years.
At the price SpaceX is quoting for the Falcon 9 Heavy, $80–125 million, the company could in all likelihood beef up the first stage to withstand re-entry and water recovery—build “just the right suit of armor,” in Musk’s words—and despite the weight penalty still produce an upper-end medium-class launch vehicle with a reusable first stage significantly less expensive than any of its domestic competition. Whether it would be less expensive than a standard Falcon 9 is perhaps a more relevant question.
If partial reusability were its only objective, SpaceX might be satisfied to pursue just such a plan. But for SpaceX, reusability, and what Musk characterizes as “rapid reusability,” are not just a goal, but also a means to a greater end.
With a single successful launch of the Falcon Heavy, Mars is officially within reach of a company whose overriding goal is to reach Mars. And it may get there sooner than anybody thought, as it was revealed this summer that SpaceX is in discussion with NASA Ames for a 2018 “Red Dragon” Discovery-class mission in which the company would utilize a Falcon Heavy to launch to Mars a Dragon capsule equipped with a drill for digging below the Martian surface to look for signs of life.
The initial success of the Falcon 9 and the introduction of the Falcon Heavy are revolutionary enough. If over the coming years, however, SpaceX is able to successfully transition the Falcon to a fully reusable launch vehicle, then the stage on which the entire arena of space exploration is cast would be radically redrawn. Simply put, with the advent of a fully reusable Falcon series of rockets, a heretofore unforeseen level of space exploration becomes not simply more affordable, but in all likelihood, unavoidable. Once a permanent human presence on Mars is within practical reach, failure to pursue it, many will argue, becomes a moral transgression against humanity itself. To be sure, Musk’s vision of thousands of émigrés to a new world will have to wait on new, even larger rockets, but his company has a plan for that as well, beginning with a large staged combustion engine it wants to begin building next year.
While “within reach” does not mean “within grasp”, it certainly bears serious consideration from a space establishment about to consume the better part of a decade and plow, at an absolute minimum, the equivalent cost of 144 Falcon Heavy flights at 53 tons each into a single 70-ton launch by 2017. With a projected launch rate of no more than once per year, and the 130-ton super-heavy version of the SLS expected no earlier than 2032 and sporting a price tag almost certain to exceed $40 billion, it is not a stretch to believe that SpaceX has a better chance of achieving reusability with the Falcon than the Senate has of achieving orbit with the heavy version of its “monster” rocket.