One of the most iconic sci-fi images is the gleaming rocket landing vertically, at which point our intrepid heroes step out onto that brave new world and… well, probably get shot at by the natives.
It’s in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, it’s in The Adventures of Tintin: Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon; it’s in The Martian. Really, it’s a natural part of the idea of a reusable spacecraft (which is also a staple of science fiction)… preferably one whose landing position is also its launching position. But it’s never actually been done until now.
There’s been a lot of work on getting vertical landings and reusable spacecraft. The Apollo Lunar Lander did it back in 1969-1972… of course, it was a.) not going through an atmosphere on either end and b.) it was landing on an object with much lower surface gravity and lower thrust requirements. The Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were reusable, but had to be recovered from the ocean and then refurbished. The Space Shuttle itself was reusable, but it required a lot of maintenance replacing worn-out parts, three additional boosters, and a crane to winch it back up into launching position. It never quite reached the low launch costs it was originally promised to have.
I vividly remember the McDonnell-Douglas DC-X program back in the ’90s, where this odd-looking pyramid shaped craft was supposed to be the harbinger of the future of landing craft. Around the same time was the X-33 project, which was supposed to more directly replace the Space Shuttle… It wasn’t supposed to be vertical takeoff and landing, but it was supposed to be a single reuseable piece. Neither project came to anything – DC-X never flew to space and was cancelled (Wikipedia says largely because NASA didn’t like it), and the X-33 ran into all kinds of technical issues (you don’t want the fuel pods exploding when there are people inside) with its test articles, so Congress killed the budget.
Now, in quick succession, we have two feats in that direction: On November 15th, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin New Shepard rocket became the first rocket to reach space (62 miles/100 kilometers up) and land vertically on the pad under rocket power. And now, on December 21, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket first stage managed the same feat after reaching 50 miles – and its upper stage sent 11 satellites into orbit. (Despite Jeff Bezos’ snarky tweet and all the press interest, I think Blue Origin’s achievement is actually the more impressive – Single stage to 62 miles to landing, even if it was a smaller, non-commercial rocket)
You don’t NEED to land a rocket standing up to reuse it, but it makes it a lot easier to reuse, and it’s necessary for the development of a space truck that can just hop from planet to planet with minimal fuss. Blue Origin has demonstrated that it’s possible, and now SpaceX has demonstrated that it can work with a rocket capable of achieving orbit (half of one, anyway). So, now we have two companies who have managed the vertical takeoff, vertical landing… and more companies are probably not all that far behind them (Scaled Composites, Masten Space Systems, and others like them).
Progress! It’s still a frustrating time to be alive, but Low Earth Orbit is getting easier and more convenient every day.