SpaceX Reusable Grasshopper Proves Hal Clement Right

SpaceX punctuates the year in private space with an apparently modest 29-second flight. On Dec. 17 its reusable Grasshopper engine fired, lifted to a hovering position of 131 feet, then made a controlled landing.

SpaceX had already made its mark cutting the costs of space launch. It still boasts the price of each launch it offers on its website. Grasshopper, as a reusable rocket, simply adds another dimension to SpaceX’s ability to give a better price than any competitor. It isn’t as splashy a success as when Dragon docked with ISS, but it could represent a big shift forward, both in price and in another area that might prove just as important. SpaceX Reusable Grasshopper Proves Hal Clement Right

I once got Hal Clement angry at me. It was at a Science Fiction convention in Baltimore in the early ’90s, and in an elevator. I read the name tag man of the man standing next to me, and correctly figured it was science fiction master Hal Clement. After suitable Oh wows! on my part, I ventured an opinion, “We’ll never get any large number of  people into space using rockets. People aren’t going to want to ride bombs.” In an elevator, yet.

That’s what I had in mind, actually. Elevators – space elevators. The only way great numbers of people would ever go into space themselves would be via the nice, non-explosive lift a space elevator. I felt certain we would be leaving rockets behind relatively soon. By the middle of the 21st century, we would look back in wonder that people ever dared ride such monstrosities.

Hal Clement was perfectly gentlemanly about it, but left no doubt about his view that I was clearly, absolutely, WRONG. Not even a little bit right, not an “Even though your premise about this or that might have merit…” Just wrong, from stem to stern.

This apparently small hop by a rocket really is a giant leap. SpaceX is correct that cost per launch is the key to everything a company can accomplish in space. But in successfully testing a reusable rocket, the Hawthorne, CA firm also crosses another threshold: it is making rockets ordinary. It turns out the goal of making rockets ordinary has always been part of the Grasshopper concept. As SpaceX founder Elon Musk put it a year ago, “If planes were not reusable, very few people would fly.”

Rocket launch will always seem just a bit dangerous so long as large parts of the rocket are destroyed upon launch, cast off as flaming debris and large pieces of metal, into the air, into orbit, wherever. As long as this is the image of a rocket launch, we’ll always have that feeling of people who ride rockets into space, that they’re being awfully brave.

Boeing 727 engine
Boeing 727 engine

We don’t worry about that with airplanes. 727 engines are fired, and turned off, and fired again, daily, over many years. No one really worries about them much. You’re not brave because you flew from McCarran to LAX last week. That’s because, being reusable, it can be thought of us a legitimatemachine and not just a bomb we trained to explode in the right direction, we hope.

Well, I can see the writing on the wall same as anyone. Based upon SpaceX’s success with Grasshopper, I’m going to declare the late Hal Clement the winner in our disagreement. I still like the space elevator. Grasshopper, however, points the way to rocketry really being with us for a very long time as our preferred, even exclusive means to reach space. Once the public starts seeing rocket launches in which the booster rocket engine just drifts down in a controlled landing, is washed off, test-fired, and ready for use again, rocket launches will become safe to the point of ordinary.

Under that paradigm, the rocket might become too standardized as a means to travel into space to be removable, even should a rival emerge. Space elevator people, you’d better get moving.

by Todd Jackson