SpaceX founder Elon Musk has always acknowledged the debt his company owes to NASA. Much of SpaceX’s technology is rooted in the space agency’s research. As the entrepreneur says, “I would not have been able to start SpaceX without the amazing work NASA has done in the past. Nor would SpaceX be where it is today without the help of NASA.”

But standing on the shoulders of giants is also the first step to becoming one yourself, and SpaceX’s ambitious test of a reusable booster this month may have done as much to prove it is on a trajectory to greatness as all its other spectacular successes put together. The risk involved is testing a radical concept for a reusable booster concept during a vitally important cargo resupply flight to the International Space Station (ISS). As if the ISS resupply flight was not important enough, SpaceX also wants to compete against United Launch Alliance for U.S. Air Force missions to launch military and intelligence satellites. Failure was not an option, just a distinct possibility.

SpaceX has not revealed much of its flight data, but it seems to have been overwhelmingly successful (see page 25). And the flight certainly evokes NASA’s can-do spirit of the 1960s. SpaceX’s breakneck pace of development has been almost Apollo-like in its execution.

The ground-launched Grasshopper vertical-launch, vertical- landing development testbed, which formed the first part of Musk’s plan to slash the cost of each launch, only flew for the first time in September 2012. Pending further successful tests of the follow-on Falcon 9 reusable demonstrators as well as more booster recovery attempts on other launches this year, SpaceX says the first reflight of a used booster could come as early as next year.

Success is far from guaranteed, and the pieces of Musk’s low-cost launch puzzle still need to be fitted together. But the ambitious effort shows a more aggressive investment in R&D than by the established players, either those supported in the U.S. by the Defense Department or those in Europe backed by the EU and European Space Agency. If Musk can get so far so quickly, who is to say his vision of human settlements on Mars is beyond reach.

[Editor's Note: The name United Launch Alliance has been corrected.]