In the early imaginings of spaceflight, astronauts were carried into the cosmos by rockets that took off and landed and took of again. It wasn’t until we discovered just how much heft was required to toss a craft out of Earth’s gravity that the single-stage idea was abandoned.
The reality of spaceflight since then has been multistage rockets that, like giant eczematous centipedes, shed layer upon layer of rocket booster as they clamber labouriously skyward.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to build single-stage reusable spacecraft, but, plagued by technical and financial problems, they have always been abandoned. Now a British firm, Reaction Engines, believe they have the problem solved – and the solution is a brilliantly British spaceplane, called Skylon.
[Graphic: Science fiction made real – Meet the Skylon spaceplane. Click to launch]