Since humans began putting satellites into orbit in the 1950s, we’ve relied upon big, powerful rockets to escape Earth’s gravity and get into space. But big rockets have a major downside, in that they make space launches expensive. Case in point: NASA’s Space Launch System heavy lift rocket, which is scheduled for its maiden flight in December 2019, will cost an estimated $1 billion per launch, according to a 2017 report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). Launch costs for SpaceX’s far more economical Falcon Heavy, which launched successfully from Kennedy Space Center in February 2018, still range between $90 million and $150 million for a fully expendable, maxed-out version, according to CNBC.
For decades, however, visionaries have looked for ways to get into space without relying — at least not primarily — upon rocket power.