With every passing month, SpaceX is setting new records in the race to privatize space exploration.
This past week -- on Oct. 7, to be precise -- the company's experimental Grasshopper reusable rocket ship launched itself to its highest height yet: 2,441 feet straight up, then 2,441 feet straight down, landing right on its rump, and right back where it started on its launching pad. (Watch it fly in this YouTube video).
This test flight more than doubled Grasshopper's previous altitude record of 1,066 feet, set in July, but didn't attempt to retest the vehicle's ability to "divert" itself from a straight up-down flight path, as was tested in August.
The Grasshopper spacecraft launches itself atop a SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket first-stage tank powered by a Merlin 1D engine. It lands on four steel and aluminum landing legs cushioned with hydraulic dampers. It is designed to test the concept that spacecraft don't need to be disposable -- launching satellites into orbit, then falling into the atmosphere to burn up on re-entry. With Grasshopper, the idea is for the same spacecraft that lifts the satellite into orbit to then itself drop back down, pass through the atmosphere intact, and safely land itself back where it started.
Lather, rinse, repeat, and Grasshopper will become the first reusable space launch vehicle since the Space Shuttle -- and the first privately built reusable space-launch vehicle ever.