By Erik Derr ( | First Posted: Mar 10, 2013 09:40 AM EDT

(Photo : Creative Commons/Erik Derr)

He went to Texas last week to test a new rocket design he hopes will someday transport visitors to Mars --- and left with reporters buzzing about the possibility of a new regional spacecraft base.

Elon Musk, the visionary CEO of SpaceX, the first private company to send a cargo payload to the International Space Station, was in Austin, Texas March 7 for the latest test of the company's next-generation transporter, a reusable Falcon 9 rocket that can take off and land vertically.

The prototype, dubbed "Grasshopper," is a Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs. The rocket had already made two short flights: the first on Sept. 21 of last year, when it reached a height of 6 feet, and the second about a month after that on Nov. 1, when it reached an altitude of 17.7 feet (5.4 m).

The Grasshopper's "hop," which gave those visiting the nearby South by Southwest, an annual multimedia arts and trade festival the first public viewing of the rocket in action.

SpaceX later reported the 10-story-tall rocket rose 24 stories off the ground --- which is 262.8 feet, or 80.1 meters --- hovered for 34 seconds and then landed safely back on Earth, on its own power.

At least some of the excitement generated from the successful test was lost to Musk's other focus while in the Yellow Rose State, to drum up support for a new commercial spaceport.

"There's an important need for Air Force space launch bases as there is for Air Force airports," Musk later told an audience gathered at a South by Southwest festival event hall. He named the spaceports run by the Air Force at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg in California.

"But then there's also a need for commercial airports," Musk said, adding that such space travel hubs need to be close to the Equator and able to launch missions --- making Texas a leading candidate, the San Antonio Express-News reported him saying.

Musk disputed the idea his outfit is competing with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is currently Spacex's biggest customer.

Then again, "We lost the will to explore and lost the will to push the boundary," Musk said of the U.S. space program.

But, regardless, he said, "the United States is a nation of explorers; the United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration."

Musk has said he started SpaceX in an attempt to spur Congress to increase NASA's funding for human missions to Mars.

(Photo : Creative Commons/Erik Derr)

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