History was made on 21 December 2015 as Falcon 9 became the first rocket to ever return from space and land vertically on a pad, Thunderbird 3-style. Well, almost. What actually landed was the first stage booster, while the second stage carried on into space to deploy a number of communication satellites. Up until now, multi-stage rockets have discarded their initial stages to burn up in the atmosphere or crash into the sea. Reusable spaceships have been a dream of engineers for decades. The Space shuttle was the most successful so far, but it still relied on disposable solid fuel boosters to get it into space. Space X's Falcon 9 may lead to fully reusable space rockets like the fictional Thunderbird 3, massively reducing the cost of getting into space.
Rockets are the traditional means of getting into space, but the stresses of acceleration have limited rocket travel to a few trained astronauts. But what if you could get into space via something resembling a normal airliner? Reaction engines' Skylon spaceplane could be the answer. Still in development, this spaceplane could revolutionise the way we get into space.
While the prototype is designed to take cargo, the principal could easily be used for a passenger carrying spacecraft.passenger carrying is the principal aim of Virgin Galactic.
Virgin's Spaceships utilise a carrier aircraft propelled by normal jet engines to take the rocket ship as far as the upper atmosphere, where it detaches and uses a rocket engine to access low earth orbit. The same principal will also be used for commercial satellite lunch.
For the latter half of the 20th century, the space race was between governments; the USA versus the USSR. Now the race is between corporations, and the demand for GPS, communication and weather satellites means whoever can get to space for the lowest price will get the most business.