“Grasshopper continues our path toward reusability,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said when asked about Grasshopper at the AIAA Space 2011 conference in Long Beach, California, two days before Musk’s speech. She declined to provide additional details about the project, but did say low-altitude test flights could begin by early next year from a SpaceX site in Texas, pending approval of an experimental permit from the FAA.
SpaceX is not the only company actively working on an orbital reusable launch vehicle. Blue Origin, the secretive aerospace company founded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, has NASA funding to mature the design of a space vehicle that could be launched on existing expendable rockets, such as the Atlas V. Eventually, though, Blue Origin plans to replace the Atlas with its own reusable orbital launch vehicle, and is using part of the $22 million Commercial Crew Development award it received from NASA earlier this year to work on an engine for that rocket.
“We intend to fly our own Blue Origin reusable launch vehicles that will take [our] space vehicle up and make that system much more affordable,” said Rob Meyerson, program manager at Blue Origin, at AIAA Space 2011. The company has not disclosed development schedules or other technical details about its planned vehicle. However, the support the company has from NASA, coupled with the financial backing provided by Bezos, makes the company’s effort worth watching.
This is not the first time companies have shown an interest in building reusable launch vehicles. In the late 1990s, several companies, including Kistler Aerospace and Rotary Rocket Company, had ambitious plans for orbital reusable launch vehicles, but their projects never materialized.
What’s the difference this time around? Charles Lurio, a space industry consultant and publisher of The Lurio Report newsletter, says current companies have made more progress than earlier firms, including building and flying hardware. “They have a fair shot at making it work,” he says, “but nothing’s guaranteed.”