In Single Stage to Orbit, Andrew J Butrica details the development and eventual
cancellation of the single stage to orbit concept, specifically the SSX (Single Stage eXperimental
and later Space Ship eXperimental) program. As Butrica emphasizes throughout the book, the
SSX vehicles tended to focus on two key ides: single stage to orbit and aircraft-like operations.
Single stage to orbit means just as it says and aircraft-like operations means the capability for
fast turnaround time and not needed a standing army to operate the spacecraft.
The story of the single stage to orbit vehicle truly begins in the late 1800s when
visionaries such as Jules Verne, who wrote
From the Earth to the Moon…
, began describing
vehicles that could take humans to the moon and further and were primarily single staged.
ideas, however, did not really begin to turn into practice until the early 1980s during the Reagan
At this time, supporters of the DC-X program, such as Newt Gingrich, and
supporters of space-based defense systems, such as Max Hunter and Daniel Graham, pressured
Reagan to develop a space policy.
Reagan’s space agenda therefore focused on two fronts: the
commercialization of space by providing companies with more realistic methods for getting into
space and the development of space-based weaponry that could be used against other satellites
and incoming ballistic missiles (the “Star Wars” system that became the Strategic Defense
Since the Space Shuttle was not fulfilling the role necessary for SDI, various
designs, including the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP), Continental/SemiGlobal Transport
(C/SGT), and SSX.
Max Hunter, Daniel Graham, and Jerry Pournelle eventually drove SSX
through the Phase I and Phase II designs, but eventually due to funding restraints and a new
administration, Phase III was delayed and the SSX took on new names (DC-X, Delta Clipper,
Eventually, the Delta Clipper was tested and proved itself successful on initial test
flights, but a human error resulted in the destruction of the vehicle on the fourth test flight of the
second iteration and a compilation of budget constraints and the end of the inability to justify
further funding resulted in this being the last flight of the program.
Before examining the book’s arguments, a discussion of the author is in order.