Single-stage-to-orbit

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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.

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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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