Elon Musk's hypothetical Hyperloop is getting all the attention this week, but another one of his futuristic transportation pet projects is progressing by leaps and bounds in the real world. SpaceX's reusable, vertical landing, Grasshopper rocket took to the skies once again in McGregor, Texas, yesterday, for another milestone flight. The 100-foot-tall rocket has previously flown to heights in excess of 1,000 feet, hovered for a few seconds, and landed perfectly upright on the launchpad. But yesterday's test launch saw Grasshopper do something it's never done before: launch straight up about 800 feet, then travel over 300 feet sideways, or laterally, before returning to its original position in mid-air and landing.
The lateral maneuver shows off SpaceX's ability to steer the rocket precisely, which the company says is an important milestone in its eventual goal of being able to perform an accurate vertical landing after a rocket re-enters from space at hypersonic speeds. Other private space-faring companies have shown off impressive lateral motions on vertical landing craft before, but using far smaller rockets than SpaceX's gigantic, 10-story-tall Grasshopper, the size of which makes it more challenging to control. For most of human spaceflight history, rockets have not been reusable.
In the near future, SpaceX hopes to use Grasshopper technology on the Falcon 9 rockets that are already ferrying cargo into space and toward the International Space Station. Being able to return and reuse a rocket is ultimately much less costly than the current method of letting booster stages burn up in the atmosphere after launch, requiring new ones to be used every time. Musk previously said that SpaceX would attempt a Falcon 9 water landing later this year and a vertical landing on the ground in 2014. The latest Grasshopper test shows those goals are within reach.