Time to Think ‘Horizontal’ for Future Space Launches

Is firing a rocket from the ground straight up into space the right way to do things?

It sure was in the 1950s and ’60s and it persists today. But it’s still expensive, fraught with technical risk and dwindling into obsolescence.

There could be an alternative on the horizon, however, that incorporates the concepts of railguns, scram jets and kinetic launching into an innovative, reusable space launch system for unmanned cargo.

An early proposal has emerged that calls for a wedge-shaped aircraft with scramjets to be launched horizontally on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. The aircraft would fly up to Mach 10, using the scramjets and wings to lift it to the upper reaches of the atmosphere where a small canister or capsule similar to a rocket’s second stage would fire off the back of the aircraft and into orbit. The aircraft would come back and land on a runway by the launch site.

Engineers say this isn’t so far fetched. The technologies for accelerating a vehicle on a horizontal plane are there, the scramjet is within reach and the science behind the slingshot payload is sound.

“All of these are technology components that have already been developed or studied,” Starr said. “We’re just proposing to mature these technologies to a useful level, well past the level they’ve already been taken.”

The 10-year program is scheduled to begin with drone launches, culminating in small satellite payloads. Engineers say there is certainly the potential for manned payloads “after unmanned launches rack up successes.”

BREAK BREAK: And it looks as if the Air Force may be looking in a similar reusable, slingshot method but with a vertical launch.

(Gouge: CF)

— Christian

  • Milt Thanatos

    “1950’s and 60’s”? Heinlein was there first.

  • AyeGuy

    The must be a way to Weaponize this system….planetary bombardment capability in mere minutes?

    • JEFF

      If it worked there isn’t any reason the satelite sized payload can’t be sent towards a target, especially if the scramjet portion is a single use vehicle with all the guidance that it appears to have. I believe that it would likely push the cost beyond that of conventional missiles and rockets. The cost saving for utilizing this system would come from the ability to reuse the engine section.

      • Nick

        I can see it now… Low Orbit Launch Long Range Cruise Missile (LOLLRCM). Hey, AMRAAM made it, why not?

    • Ing3nium

      I would suspect you can’t cost justifiy a system like this as compared to a standard missile. Arclight seems a better, and more realistic option for that.

    • Jacob

      Oh god….first post here on the comments section is about weaponization of a new technology whose concept art is emblazoned with all those pretty NASA logos and colors….

      • LeoC

        Most major technology advances have a military tie-in. Why? Bucks! The military has very deep pockets and can pay for expensive RD&T in the name of national security w/o concern for ROI or payback.

    • AyeGuy

      Sure it would be expensive, but for the right target that needs to be struck in a timely manner, it might be worth it, like if a SF team on the ground spotted an Iranian nuke being readied to hit Tel Aviv.

  • Marcase

    That’s a lot of G-force, hope both craft and payload are up to it.

    • JEFF

      That would be my only concern; that whatever cost saving they have on launching the satelites would be lost in building those satelites more rigidly to survive what I believe is a higher G-force.

      • david
      • david
  • John

    Looks like the Sanger Bomber concept from WW II. What’s Old is New

  • Mike C.

    Would this process really be cheaper and less prone to problems than the ‘traditional’ approach? The article doesn’t seem to delve into benefits versus costs.

    • Brian

      No way to know, yet. The most similar approach used today is what they did with Spaceship One. You piggy-back your ship on top of a much bigger plane. When you hit the desired speed/altitude, you detach and launch.

      This may be a case of overthinking the problem. I’m not sure that we really need a high-speed launch rail when we have perfectly usable jumbo jets that already go really high and fast. While it’s probably technically possible, we’re looking at a lot of investment to get a different way to do something we already know how to do.

    • Ing3nium

      You would use substantially less rocket fuel. Less weight and parts going into orbit, the spacecraft would be simpler in ways. Launch is far more complex but it sounds like a solid plan. Just need to advance the tech a bit more.

    • It’s certainly a more elegant solution from a physics perspective. Why fight gravity alone? Get lift on your side. From a technical perspective, I don’t know if it is more complex.. although it doesn’t seem like it would be any more advanced then scramjet tech plus a supersized EM carrier catapult.

    • Jeff m

      this concept probably won’t ever make sense, the rocket fuel isn’t the biggest portion of a launch cost. A rocket might cost 50 mil but the fuel is probably 1/10th or less, so if this vehicle costs twice as much you are better off just trying to make the fuel cheaper, which is an all around more useful idea anyway.

    • Gerry

      Its much, much safer. If you start down the rail and have engine or whatever problems, you just shut down and abort. With vertical launch, once you press that button you can’t stop the launch.

  • CJC

    Rofl Ace Combat had this concept and its a video game!!!!!!!!!! look it up

  • Tad

    This is a great idea. It has been around a long time and I’ve often wondered over the years how long it would take before it was seriously attempted.

  • Tad

    I also wonder if it would be possible to have some kind of electromagnetic accelerator that is is many miles long and goes up the side of a mountain, basically a cannon pointing eastward and upward. If the gradient was shallow enough, and if the accelerator was long enough, then I would imagine something like this might be feasible to send a capsule with a small payload into space.

  • STemplar

    It’s all feasible, you just need a down range a couple thousand miles long l would think and a good sized power plant for the electricity for the rail. One of the gee whiz ideas for moving payloads to orbit. Not as gee whiz as an orbital tether/beanstalk concept, put still pretty cool.

  • tawodi

    As long as orbital velocities are not reached until the craft is in the far reaches of the atmosphere or actual low eath orbit there is not as much of a technical problem as people think. The materials and energies needed are not the same as vertical launch from zero V to orbital V in such a short time span. Since the time can be stretched out and the fuel load converted to pay load, there is a savings there as well.

  • roland

    I think the test is helpfull for both NASA and airforce.

  • Drake1

    Weight is the killer of horizontal.

  • Cranky Observer

    Where have I heard of this idea before? Oh yeah, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a novel incorporating it. I believe the copyright date was 1951.


  • They did this on then Gerry Andersen sci fic kidshow Fireball XL5 BW show.
    & used same for 1950 When Worlds Collide.
    Locales for:
    Andes, Rocky Mtns, Teton Range, Cascades, No Canada Yukon, Swiss Alps/French Alps,
    No Norway-Norway, Sweden, No UK, Iceland for Spaceshot ramps.

    • Mr B

      Perhaps a ramp between the twin peaks of Killamanjaro.

      (apologies to Monty Python).

  • Oblat

    So the organizatioj that cant build a reliable reusable rocket now proposes building a manned electromagnetic launched scram-jet slingshot. I wouldn’t be holding my breath. The Chinese will own space by the time this sees the light of day.

  • Tenn Slim

    Meanwhile, the Shuttle days are over.

    Orbital satellites are decaying and the NASA group is exercising outdoors via the Global Change Society rules.

    We have come a long way of the Holycon days of true space exploration. Man on the Moon in our lifetime, never happern. Continued Space Probles, probably, till the NASA and JetLabs budgets dry up.

    As we sink ever deeper into debt, with the Current Admin leading the charge, we resort to Buck Rogers fantasy. Always a neat head in the sand approavch to disaster.


    Semper Fi

  • prometheusgonewild

    I see multiple problems with the picture.
    The article says the argument is between vertical and horizontal launch of this vehicle. How about running it down a plain and then up the side of a mountain? Granted, very long and expensive, but you would need just one.
    The space craft is too close to the maglev. The craft has to be a out of the magnetic field of the track to keep it from screwing up the digital data buses in the craft.
    I am not a huge fan of the scram jet. It is only good at very high altitudes, after you are at super speed. Great for skimming the upper atmosphere. Not so good for getting into space.
    I see no reason not to use solid rockets with the launch craft.
    I know, this idea is being touted as an end to rockets. But the problem with rockets is the fact the bigger they get the bigger they get, the more fuel they use just to LIFT THE FUEL. The larger they are, the more inefficient they are.
    But with this type of launch, the rocket could be much smaller, set at a much lower thrust (for a longer safer burn) and set far enough back from the craft so if it blows up the vehicle can disengage and return safely.
    I am hoping the Air Force pushes this through. NASA is still wailing over the dead carcass of the Shuttle and its cancelled rocket……

  • Maxtrue

    As far as theater application on carriers etc. a short rail would have to apply more speed over smaller distance. The stress to launcher, magnets, sled and craft would be enormous not to mention any human payloads. I assume there would be a sonic boom signaling launches as well as significant heat from friction with sea level atmosphere.

    Scrams would certainly lower the fuel needed in rail launch systems but then there is the SpaceOne concept. A UHAD (ultra high altitude drone) could conceivable get an X-37-like drone up over 120,000 ft where a rocker engine could get payload into sub orbital. Or a UHAD could unload four rods that could achieve sub orbital with individual booster as well as achieve high termination velocity with another booster for accelerated guided decent. The same UHAD could also release four scram cruise missiles. We are talking about very significant impact energies. The UHAD could loiter for some time and even be refueled in the air. There are lots of ideas, but what we are trying to achieve is a critical factor.

    The original Sanger concept involved a rocket sled. This still might make more sense if a maglev application simply supplies a frictionless track. Once the lift vehicle achieves sufficient speed, scram engines can certainly supply the thrust for escape velocity using far less fuel than a rocket. The stress on lift vehicles might make reuse questionable……

    Launching smaller scram cruise missiles, kinetic weapons and drones seem achievable in the near term by rail. Lets make a 75mm rail cannon the benchmark for getting excited…..


    Remember in some of the old Science Fiction TV series, the spacecraft would get launched from an electromagnetic catapult system; it makes sense that such a system which would be miles in length could accelerate something even a fully loaded space shuttle to Mach 26 as the main engine would need very little to punch into low earth orbit.

  • blight

    The long rail also means you don’t need to accelerate very fast, as you have a long ramp and can do it incrementally. Electronics can be less rugged (but I doubt they wouldn’t be any less ruggedized) and the platforms will probably get less wear from being accelerated gradually over a very long ramp.

    So all we need is to find a long plain that points southeast as it increases in altitude and doesn’t have the potential of dumping aircraft parts over farms, rivers and urban areas. Any takers?

  • Tim

    Yea that skyramp website has all the details on how this works.

    They say the track really needs to be inclined upwards or much of the velocity gained from the ramp is lost as energy is bled off when it must turn upward. They also explain the similar tunnel (tube) launch.

  • Tim

    blight, that skyramp site shows some sites, China Lake and Organ Mountains.

    • blight

      China Lake will bring jobs back to California, and since it’s on military land EPA rules won’t apply. Totally sweet!

  • Matt Holzmann

    I’m seeing Wile E. Coyote and the Acme Rocket Sled here………watch out for bird impacts…..

  • Johann

    This reminds me of both Heinlein and Gerald Bull’s Supergun project.

  • derry

    Bull’s 16-inch gun (with a double long barrel) was a high-G launch, for harden satellites. This concept is for 3-6 Gs (man rated) using a much, much longer track or tube. If you can get it up to Mach 1, that reduces fuel requirements in half.

  • Darrell Whitmer

    For some you may remember a Sat. kids program called Fireball X something that used this method to launch a space craft manned by marionettes. It used a rocket sled to boost the speed on an inclined ramp.

  • Mark
  • Mark

    Oops, should have mentioned that I’ve read elsewhere that there were thoughts about launching DynaSoar via a rocket-powered railroad car.

  • Micheal

    My question is, if you could get a launch system like this to work, why would you not use it to launch and propel waste into space and then directed at the sun? Is this too scifi? Why couldn’t we launch old Nuclear rods and toxic waste at the sun?