SpaceX Grasshopper Makes a Giant Leap

If Elon Musk keeps this up, he's going to gift humanity with reusable rockets in less than two years.

Over the weekend, in an unexpected announcement, Musk's space-exploration vehicle and privately owned space launch company, SpaceX, placed a video on YouTube, showing its latest test of the Grasshopper reusable, vertical take-off, vertical landing spacecraft. In a 95-second demonstration, we see Grasshopper lift itself off its launch pad, rise 1,066 feet into the air, bobble a bit and get its bearings, then safely drop back down to land -- it appears -- within mere inches from where it took off.

This is all part of Musk's grand plan to create a spaceship capable of launching from Earth, doing its business in space, then lowering itself back down to Earth all under its own power -- and by all indications, it appears that everything's going according to plan.

The Grasshopper, a 10-story-tall rocket ship consisting of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, standing on aluminum legs and powered by a Merlin 1D engine, will be the first spacecraft ever to accomplish the task Musk has set it to perform. If it does so, SpaceX could inaugurate an era of cheap space travel, in which rockets no longer need to be built from scratch for each and every launch. Instead, a rocket built once, upon accomplishing its mission, will return to Earth for an oil change, to get its tires rotated, and its gas tank refilled -- then be good to go on another milk run.

The plan
According to plans filed with the Federal Aviation Administration two years ago, SpaceX is testing Grasshopper in three phases. Judging from what we know about the June test (shown in the video), it appears the company has now entered into phase three of its testing, which calls for leaps to altitudes of first 1,200 feet (roughly where it got to this time), then 2,500, 5,000, 7,500, and finally 11,500 -- taking the craft more than two miles into the sky.

Granted, that's still about 50 times short of the altitude Grasshopper will need to hop to reach low earth orbit. But already, we've seen the craft go from less than two meters to 325 meters in height in just 10 months -- an 18,000% increase in altitude. Were altitudes to keep on increasing at this phenomenal rate, the rocket could top 35 miles in altitude 10 months from now, then pass through 6,000 miles just 10 months after that -- leapfrogging low earth orbit to arrive in medium earth orbit.

What's next?
SpaceX's FAA filing doesn't say what might happen after the 11,500-foot test flight -- or even how long it might take the company to get that high. From an investor's perspective, though, I have to say: "Slow it down, Elon. Take it slow -- and don't forget to IPO."

Because perhaps the most annoying thing about watching Grasshopper leap to ever-higher bounds, is knowing that so far, the only of Musk's three companies that he's permitting investors to participate in are solar power lessor SolarCity  (NASDAQ: SCTY  )  and electric-car maker Tesla Motors  (NASDAQ: TSLA  )  -- the two that are currently (and massively) unprofitable. In contrast, profitable, successful SpaceX remains frustratingly privately held by Musk.

Speaking entirely from the selfish perspective of an investor who'd prefer to buy profitable companies rather than money-burners, I'd much rather buy a piece of SpaceX before it revolutionizes space travel, than after.

And if you want to invest in the future of technology, there's good news to report: Iran, North Korea, and China may all be making great strides in space exploration relative to where they were a decade ago... and to where we were 50 years ago. But as SpaceX demonstrates, the future is (still) made in America. Read on now, and explore our special free report on three disruptive companies that are working to revolutionize the world of tomorrow. Just click here.


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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 08, 2013, at 12:32 PM, jamesdan567 wrote:

    SpaceX should not become a public company for a long time. Solar City and Tesla are great companies. Their historical numbers are losses but their profitability is assured because of their top quality products and huge unserved markets.

    Smart investors remember that historical numbers tell us what happened in the past, but they do NOT tell anything about what is happening now and in the future, except that the adoption rates of solar panels and electric cars are growing extremely rapidly worldwide.

  • Report this Comment On July 08, 2013, at 12:54 PM, SLTom992 wrote:

    Perhaps you ought to wait a little while before claiming Solar City and Tesla successes. SpaceX is also looking suspiciously like a short term success followed by a long term failure as Federal Grants and tax deference disappear.

  • Report this Comment On July 10, 2013, at 1:05 PM, Halio1984 wrote:

    SpaceX a short term success? apart from Russia its rockets cost half of what comparable rockets cost in the us or Europe. it has launches lined up through 2017. it has the only cargo capsule out side Russia that can return LIVE experiments from the ISS. And it has road mapped a manned dragon space capsule (due to be tested in 2014 i believe), the world's second largest heavy lift rocket (second only to the Apollo rockets), and reusable rocket technology. This company is here to stay for at least 10 years and by that time there wont even be nations that can compete.

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