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A single-stage-to-orbit (or SSTO) vehicle reaches orbit from the surface of a body without jettisoning hardware, expending only propellants and fluids. The term usually, but not exclusively, refers to reusable vehicles.

No Earth-launched SSTO launch vehicles have ever been constructed. Current orbital launches are either performed by multi-stage fully or partially expendable rockets, or by the Space Shuttle which is multi-stage and partially reusable. Several research spacecraft have been designed and partially or completely constructed, including Skylon, the DC-X, the X-33, and the Roton SSTO. However, despite showing some promise, none of them has come close to achieving orbit yet.

Single-stage-to-orbit has been achieved from the Moon by both the Apollo program's Lunar Module and several robotic spacecraft of the Soviet Luna programme; the lower lunar gravity and absence of any significant atmosphere makes this much easier than from Earth.


Approaches to SSTO

There have been various approaches to SSTO, including pure rockets that are launched and land vertically, air-breathing scramjet-powered vehicles that are launched and land horizontally, nuclear-powered vehicles, and even jet-engine-powered vehicles that can fly into orbit and return landing like an airliner, completely intact.

For rocket-powered SSTO, the main challenge is achieving a high enough mass-ratio to carry sufficient propellant to achieve orbit, plus a meaningful payload weight. One possibility is to give the rocket an initial speed with a space gun, as planned in the Quicklaunch project.

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