Tech billionaire Elon Musk made headlines this week with his "Hyperloop" announcement. Posted on the blog for one of this two publicly traded companies, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA), Hyperloop is Musk's madcap plan to shoot passengers along tubes hundreds of miles long (and, incidentally, topped with solar panels that his other publicly traded company, SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY) installs), from city to city in the relative blink of an eye.

With Hyperloop, Musk hopes to revolutionize inter-city travel. But it's his plans for inter-planetary travel that interest us today.

See Grasshopper fly
You see, over at Musk's still-not-IPO'ed space exploration company, SpaceX, they're teaching their pet Grasshopper some new tricks.


The Grasshopper at launch. Source: SpaceX

Last month, we regaled you with news that SpaceX's experimental vertical take-off and -- more importantly -- vertical landing rocketship "Grasshopper" had climbed a new height. Launching itself 1,066 feet into the air, hovering there suspended above its own rocket exhaust, Grasshopper then slowly descended to land on its tail right back where it began, on the launch pad.

It was an amazing, unprecedented feat, yet in a way, it was a feat duplicated hundreds of thousands of times a day in elevator shafts all around the world. Go up. Stop. Go back down.

Big deal.

This is a big deal!
What Grasshopper did last week, though, was much harder than that. Rocketing 820 feet along a "y" axis, and also shimmying 328 feet along the "x" to the side, Grasshopper's combined footage displacement adds up to a slightly longer trip than the one Grasshopper took a month ago. More importantly, though, it takes Grasshopper one hop closer to viability as a real-world spacecraft -- precious few of which have the luxury of following a straight line from Point A to Point B, then back again, never deviating in direction.

What SpaceX showed last week was that it's making progress toward turning Grasshopper into a viable candidate to become a reusable rocket ship -- one that can maneuver, change direction, and course-correct to avoid crashing on landing.

This is a very big deal for SpaceX, for the people who may eventually invest in it, and for the two companies it most ardently hopes to compete against -- Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) and Boeing (NYSE: BA), which together form the "United Launch Alliance" and have built a business on charging tens of millions of dollars for each satellite they launch into space atop a disposable rocketship.


ULA Delta IV at launch. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

SpaceX hopes to overturn that model, by eventually building a truly reusable rocket that can loft satellites into space at a cost little more than that of the price of the fuel needed to lift them into orbit.

With every advance that Grasshopper makes, every test it takes and passes, we get a little closer to that goal.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Tesla Motors and owns shares of Lockheed Martin and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.