SpaceX Grasshopper Test Reminiscent of DC-X, New Shepard

SpaceX Grasshopper Test Reminiscent of DC-X, New Shepard

SpaceX revealed on December 23 that it conducted another successful test of its Grasshopper rocket on December 17.   This time the rocket rose 40 meters (about 120 feet), hovered, and vertically descended to land on the pad where it had just taken off. 

SpaceX posted a video of the 29-second test on YouTube.  Watching it is reminiscent of an earlier program, the DC-X, sponsored initially by DOD’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) and later by NASA.

DC-X stood for Delta Clipper-Experimental and a later version, DC-XA, added “advanced” to the name.   McDonnell Douglas, one of the country’s leading aerospace companies at the time, was the prime contractor on the project and renowned former astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad was the project’s leader at the company.  It merged with Boeing in 1997.

Like SpaceX’s Grasshopper, the goal was to demonstrate a reusable launch vehicle that took off and landed vertically, although it was shaped differently than Grasshopper.  Subscale prototype DC-X and DC-XA vehicles achieved several successful tests between 1993-1996, ascending vertically, moving laterally, and then descending vertically.  NASA took over the program in 1996 after BMDO determined it could no longer afford it.  During its next to last test in 1996, it reached a record altitude of 3,140 meters (about 10,000 feet).    It flew its last flight in July 1996 when it was heavily damaged upon landing because one of the landing struts failed to deploy.  It tipped over and was engulfed in flames.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is not the only company interested in the DC-X dream of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL).  Blue Origin, owned by another Internet billionaire, Jeff Bezos, is designing the New Shepard system.  NASA describes New Shepard as being “inspired” by the DC-X.  Media stories report that some of the engineers who worked on DC-X now work for Blue Origin.   A video of a successful November 17, 2011 test flight is posted on its website.

Blue Origin is relatively secret about its activities so little is known apart from its website and information provided to NASA as part of awards it received under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program for developing a “pusher” launch abort system.  Its CCDev role is completed and Blue Origin did not compete for the follow-on Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) awards.  It is focused on lowering the cost of spaceflight so more people can travel on suborbital and orbital flights.

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