Masten Space Systems Xombie

Masten Space Systems Xombie rocket. Photo: NASA/Tom Tschida

There’s a quiet revolution taking place in the commercial space flight industry: vertical takeoff/vertical landing rockets.

You know the ones. You’ve seen them in 1950s science fiction movies. Big smoking rocket rises on a pillar of flame. Comes back down the same way.

Sure, the Shuttle took off that way, but it didn’t have quiet the same poetry in motion because those 1950s rockets were all about fast turn around, vehicles you can use like a car or airplane or any other vehicle to get from place to place. After touchdown, you just got back in and took off again when you were ready to leave.

That turns out to be a surprisingly difficult engineering challenge. A rocket that takes off and lands on its tail has to be designed with reusability from the start. The ones that got us to the moon were based on ballistic missiles, one-shot wonders.

Now several aerospace startups are working the challenge from the ground up, flying a little higher with each test flight and each iteration of their rockets. One of these is Masten Space Systems in Mojave, California. This small team has been working with Draper Laboratory on testing guidance systems for planetary landers.

In a recent press release, NASA, which is funding the work, announced the highest, farthest flight yet with Masten’s Xombie rocket and Draper’s guidance system. The unmanned craft soared to just about half a kilometer in altitude and touched down a third of a kilometer from its launch point.

“Two hundred meters above the Martian or lunar surface is not the place you want to be using an innovative new sensor or landing algorithm for the first time,” NASA’s Christopher Baker says in the press release, talking about the purpose of the test program. “We are working to create an environment that provides opportunities to test these systems a little closer to home.”

Link to the press release on the NASA website to watch a video of the flight. Talk about poetry in motion. Check out those shock diamonds in the rocket flame.