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Reusability: The Key to Making Human Life Multi-Planetary

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.  A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”

--Elon Musk

SpaceX believes a fully and rapidly reusable rocket is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket currently carries a list price of about $54 million. However, the cost of fuel for each flight is only around $200,000—about 0.4% of the total. The majority of the launch cost comes from building the rocket, which flies only once. Compare that to a commercial airliner. Each new plane costs about the same as Falcon 9, but can fly multiple times per day, and conduct tens of thousands of flights over its lifetime. Following the commercial model, a rapidly reusable space launch vehicle could reduce the cost of reaching Earth orbit by a hundredfold.

Grasshopper Reusability Test Program

SpaceX’s Grasshopper is a 10-story Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicle designed to test the technologies needed to return a rocket back to Earth intact. The largest rocket-powered VTVL ever flown, Grasshopper consists of a Falcon 9 first stage, a single Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure.

Photo, SpaceX

While most rockets are designed to burn up on reentry, SpaceX rockets are designed not only to withstand reentry, but also to return to the launch pad for a vertical landing. The Grasshopper VTVL vehicle represents a critical step towards this goal.

To date, a fully reusable vehicle has not been successfully developed. As such, the Grasshopper testing program is incredibly challenging. Below are videos of our most recent test in which Grasshopper rose 325m--higher than the Chrysler building--before making a precision landing back on the pad.

Conducted at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, Grasshopper will undergo a series of test flights at progressively higher altitudes, topping out with a hover at 1,000 meters with engine shutdown and restart.