Death from aboveAs the Russian meteor recently reminded us, Earth is not immune from space rock. Thankfully impacts are rare, and big impacts even rarer, but as Carl Sagan so eloquently put it in the quote above, we can't keep whistling in the dark forever. Even when something happens rarely, if it can kill you, you need an insurance policy. At some point we have to take measures to protect ourselves and deflect near Earth objects or risk losing everything we've worked so hard to protect from other dangers.
The now defunct space shuttle tried to address that problem, but while it was successful in many ways, it wasn't really successful at lowering costs and making the all the important parts of the vehicle reusable.
SpaceX, the private space rocket company from California, is working on a relatively low-cost reusable rocket, and they've just completed a new phase of testing. See for yourself how the Grasshopper did:
Gotta love the man in black sitting on the base of the rocket, rocking to Johnny Cash!
On Thursday, March 7, 2013, SpaceX’s Grasshopper doubled its highest leap to date to rise 24 stories or 80.1 meters (262.8 feet), hovering for approximately 34 seconds and landing safely using closed loop thrust vector and throttle control. Grasshopper touched down with its most accurate precision thus far on the centermost part of the launch pad. At touchdown, the thrust to weight ratio of the vehicle was greater than one, proving a key landing algorithm for Falcon 9. The test was completed at SpaceX’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. (source)
You can see a computer-generated version of what a version of this going all the way to orbit might look like:
This kind of technology could reduce the cost of going to space by orders of magnitude, allowing scientists to study Earth and other planets to better understand nature, and to give us a better chance of deflecting asteroids and, maybe someday, colonizing Mars.