SpaceX’s Grasshopper Ascends, Conducts Lateral Manuevers

SpaceX image of Grasshopper Falcon 9 test article posted on AmericaSpace
SpaceX has successfully conducted a test of the firm’s Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing test vehicle, the Grasshopper. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Space Exploration Technologies, more commonly known as “SpaceX,” successfully completed another test flight of the company’s Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) “Grasshopper” vehicle today, Aug. 13. The Grasshopper—described as, essentially, a Falcon 9 test rig—flew to an altitude of 250 meters and conducted a 100 meter lateral (horizontal) move. Upon completion of these maneuvers, Grasshopper safely returned to the launch pad from which it took off about a minute earlier.

The purpose of this test was simple: to validate the design and to show off the test vehicle’s capabilities. With each successive test, Grasshopper is given progressively more complex tasks.

The test article stands some 10 stories tall. This means that, essentially, a structure some 106 feet tall is balanced, moved side-to-side, on the thrust produced by its engine.


Video courtesy of SpaceX

Grasshopper began testing in September of last year. The first test lasted a mere three seconds. In December 2012, Grasshopper conducted a nearly 30-second flight, climbing to some 130 feet (40 meters). This past June saw the vehicle fly for over a minute, reaching a height of 1,066 feet (325 meters). This incremental approach has proven to be highly successful in testing VTVLs, which have a history of problems. Some of the more notable ones include:

  • In May 1968, a little over a year from his entry into the history books as the first man to set foot on the surface of the Moon, Neil Armstrong was forced to eject from NASA’s Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV). This ungainly craft, more commonly known as the “flying bedstead,” was notorious for its difficult nature.
  • In July 1996, after slight accidents, repairs, and upgrades, the McDonnell-Douglas Delta Clipper Advanced, or DC-XA, was lost because of a series of events involving a liquid oxygen tank, a landing strut, and a fire. NASA cancelled the program citing budgetary concerns.
  • Just a little over a year ago, on Aug. 9, the Morpheus lander, a test article using off-the-shelf hardware, crashed and burned at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. The lander was lost during a test flight at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility.

SpaceX has managed, to date, to conduct this project with success. The company has made known its plans to have the first stage of its Falcon 9 return to Earth. Somewhat similar to how SpaceX is conducting the Grasshopper tests, the company’s founder and CEO has stated this, too, will be conducted in a step-by-step fashion.

SpaceX has managed to rack up a series of successes with successively more complex tests. The most recent one was completed today, Aug. 13. Photo Credit: SpaceX

After the successful recover of the Dragon spacecraft that conducted the second Commercial Supply Services mission to the International Space Station, Musk detailed what his company plans to do to merge what is currently being done with Grasshopper, with what will be done with the firm’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

“(in terms of the Falcon 9) … The initial recovery attempts will be from a water landing, so the first-stage booster will, after separation, continue in a ballistic arc and execute a velocity reduction burn in the atmosphere to lessen the impact. Then, right before splashdown of the stage, it’s going to light the engine again. So there will be two burns after stage separation, if things go well,” Musk said. “I want to emphasize that we don’t expect success in the first several attempts. Hopefully next year, with a lot more experience and data, we should be able to return the first stage to the launch site, deploy its landing legs, and then do a propulsive landing on land back at the launch site. So this year our efforts will be focused on recovering a first stage at all from an ocean landing, and then next year it will be about the return to launch site with the landing gear deployed.”


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  1. It’s pretty impressive to watch something 100ft tall make sort of lateral movement on purpose. And while there’s something to be said for the very incremental nature of Grasshopper’s test flights, I enjoyed hearing Gwynne Shotwell say in June “The tests are going beautifully, which fundamentally means we’re not pushing the envelope hard enough. We should have some failures with Grasshopper. We need to push harder.”

  2. I agree SpaceX needs to send up and bring it back down under max Gs …this hopping around is the easy stuff!!! The sooner the better and the be ready for Mars

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