Elon Musk builds a rocket that can take off, land and fly sideways

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File of Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, attending the Reuters Global Technology Summit in San Francisco
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Elon Musk, Chief Executive of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, attends the Reuters Global Technology Summit in San Francisco in this June 18, 2013 file photo. Billionaire Musk is having a very good year. But unlike Steve Jobs, to whom Musk is now drawing comparisons, he's not yet a cult personality to mutual fund managers. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/files (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT)

Wait a second. Rockets aren’t supposed to actually land, right?

That’s been the theme of rocket design for the last couple of centuries: They go up, they come down and they are generally destroyed in the process, either when delivering an explosive to a target or simply by burning up in the atmosphere after their mission is complete.

But the Grasshopper project, backed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s private space exploration firm, SpaceX, is taking a different approach, attempting to design a rocket that can be reused after delivering a load of cargo to outer space by taking off and landing vertically from a single site.

Musk’s Los Angeles-based team has been working on the 10-story Grasshopper rocket since 2012 and on Monday released a new proof-of-concept video showing the rocket being launched to a height of 744 meters — nearly half a mile up — before safely landing back on the launchpad where it started. Check it out.

The release follows a similar SpaceX video in August (below) that showed the Grasshopper flying 300 feet roughly side to side before returning and landing in a vertical position back on the original pad. Check out the earlier side-to-side flight test.

“Between this flight & Grasshopper tests,” Musk tweeted following the lateral flight test, “I think we now have all the pieces of the puzzle to bring the rocket back home.”

Cheaper space travel

But why do we need a reusable rocket? According to SpaceX, the idea is to cut the overall cost of space travel by allowing equipment to be used over and over again, hopefully opening the door to further exploration of the cosmos.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Musk wrote on the SpaceX Web site in March 2013. “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space."

Renaissance man

Of course, the Grasshopper rocket is just the latest amazing innovation to spring from the mind (and business interests) of Elon Musk, whose self-made fortune is estimated at roughly $6.7 billion as of 2013.

Zip2: Musk’s career began at Zip2, a Web software company that Musk co-founded with his brother, Kimbal Musk, in the mid 1990s and eventually sold to Compaq (remember them?) for nearly $350 million in cash and stock in 1999. For a lot of people, that's a career. For Musk, it was only the beginning.

PayPal: From there, Musk founded an online financial services firm called X.com in early 1999, which later acquired a small subsidiary company called PayPal. Person-to-person online payments took off shortly thereafter and PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in stock in 2002. Musk was the company’s largest shareholder at the time with 11.7 percent of its shares.

SpaceX: From there, Musk went in an entirely different direction, founding Space ExplorationTechnologies (SpaceX) in 2002 with the modest stated intent of revolutionizing space travel “with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” To date, the company has developed two fully functional rockets — the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy — as well as the reusable Dragon spacecraft, which in 2012 became the first commercial craft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Musk remains CEO/CTO of SpaceX.

Tesla: Electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla (TSLA) got its start in 2003 when Musk joined with a group of Silicon Valley engineers to prove that “electric vehicles could be awesome,” by creating the first commercially-viable electric car. The company’s first model, the Tesla Roadster, debuted in 2008 and sold more than 2,300 units in 37 countries when it was in production. Tesla is producing 20,000 units of the its second model, The Model S, a year. A third model, the Model X, is currently in the works. Musk remains CEO of Tesla. 

Solar City: SolarCity is the largest clean-energy provider in the country, according to its website, installing solar power systems for homes, businesses and government organizations “at a lower cost than they pay for energy generated by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.” Guess who currently serves as chairman of the board: Elon Musk.

Hyperloop: As if the exploration of space and reinventing the U.S. auto industry weren’t enough, a group of Tesla and SpaceX engineers in August 2013 introduced what Musk called “hyperloop,” an ultra high-speed rail concept that would transport travelers over long distances via reduced-pressure tubes, theoretically allowing a person to travel the 350 miles from LA to San Francisco in just over half an hour. Think of it as a pneumatic tube that’s big enough to fit several people and can travel at upwards of 700 miles per hour. Sounds crazy, right? Musk wants to make it a reality.

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