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Why Did NASA Strap a 6-Ft Cowboy Dummy to a 'Grasshopper' Rocket During a Test?

"...will transform space exploration by radically reducing its cost."

With NASA's human space exploration program seeming to take a backseat after its shuttle program ended in 2011, private entities have been upping their game for some time. One of them -- SpaceX -- achieved a milestone for its reusable "Grasshopper" rocket last week, ascending to a height of 12 stories.

The rocket, 10 stories in size itself and designed to takeoff and land vertically, was launched Dec. 17 at SpaceX's development facility in McGregor, Texas. According to the description for the video of the test put on YouTube Monday, the rocket rose 131 feet and landed successfully on the landing pad. The whole event only took 29 seconds.

To add a bit of fun to the test -- and to provide some perspective of the rocket's size -- SpaceX let a 6-foot dummy cowboy take a ride. Founder of SpaceX Elon Musk tweeted the below pictures:

Cowboy pictured on the rocket. (Photo: @elonmusk/Twitter)

Here you can barely see the dark mass at the base of the rocket that is the dummy cowboy. (Photo: @elonmusk/Twitter)

Watch the launch:

On Nov. 1, SpaceX conducted its second launch of the Grasshopper, which lasted 8 seconds and rose two stories (17.7 feet).

According the SpaceX program, the Grasshopper program represents "a critical step toward achieving SpaceX's goal of developing fully and rapidly reusable rockets." Unlike previous rockets, Grasshoppers are designed to land intact instead of burning up on reentry and therefore driving up costs for space travel.

Here's more about SpaceX and its involvement with NASA:

Under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA, SpaceX will fly at least 11 more cargo supply missions to the ISS, in addition to the October 2012 mission -- and in the near future, SpaceX plans to carry crew as well. Dragon was designed from the outset to carry astronauts and now, under a $440 million agreement with NASA, SpaceX is making modifications to make Dragon crew-ready.

SpaceX is the world's fastest-growing provider of launch services. Profitable and cash-flow positive, the company has nearly 50 launches on its manifest, representing about $4 billion in contracts. These include commercial satellite launches as well as NASA missions.

Currently under development is the Falcon Heavy, which will be the world's most powerful rocket. All the while, SpaceX continues to work toward one of its key goals -- developing reusable rockets, a feat that will transform space exploration by radically reducing its cost.

Check out this single-camera view version of the Dec. 17 launch:


(H/T: Business Insider)

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