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SpaceX signs lease agreement at spaceport to test reusable rocket

May 10, 2013|By W.J. Hennigan | This post has been corrected. See note below for details.

SpaceX, the Hawthorne rocket maker, has found a new home for flight testing on its reusable rocket.

The company has signed a three-year agreement to lease land and facilities at Spaceport America, the state-owned commercial launch site located 55 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M.

The announcement was made earlier this week by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has been working to perfect its Grasshopper rocket technology. The years-long project is to develop what would be the first-ever fully reusable rocket -- the holy grail in rocketry.

“I am thrilled that SpaceX has chosen to make New Mexico its home, bringing their revolutionary Grasshopper rocket and new jobs with them,” Martinez said. “We’ve done a lot of work to level the playing field so we can compete in the space industry. This is just the first step in broadening the base out at the spaceport.”

The new $209-million futuristic-looking facility is already slated to be the home of British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which aims to launch paying customers beyond Earth's confines from there sometime next year.

Under the terms of SpaceX's lease, the company will pay $6,600 a month to lease a mission control facility and will pay $25,000 per launch, according to a spaceport spokesman.

“Spaceport America offers us the physical and regulatory landscape needed to complete the next phase of Grasshopper testing," said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. "We are pleased to expand our reusable rocket development infrastructure to New Mexico.”

For SpaceX, a reusable system could mean big savings in developing and operating rockets. The closest example of a reusable launch system is the retired space shuttle fleet, which were only partially reused after a tedious months-long overhaul.

In the Grasshopper, SpaceX engineers are aiming to develop a rocket that can return to a launchpad for a vertical landing, instead of burning up upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

For months, the company has been completing a series of successful, low-altitude tests of the 10-story Grasshopper test vehicle at its facilities in McGregor, Texas -- going higher each time.

During the latest 34-second flight on April 12, the rocket burst into the sky, rose 820 feet, hovered and landed safely on the pad using thrust vector and throttle control.  To cushion its fall back to the launchpad, the Grasshopper has steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure.

Video of the test can be seen above.

Founded in 2002, SpaceX makes its cargo capsules and rockets at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that was once used to assemble fuselage sections for Boeing 747s.

The company has successfully carried out two cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station for NASA. It is the only commercial company to do so.

[For the record, 4:54 p.m. May 10: A previous version of this story said Spaceport America was located in Las Cruces, N.M. It is 55 miles north of Las Cruces.]

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