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"We're about 20 minutes away from the point where Clarke's law kicks in and technology becomes indistinguishable from magic."
- Peter Watts

Atmospheric Braking  
  Using a planet's atmosphere to gradually decelerate a spacecraft.  

This is a relatively early reference to the idea of aerobraking, although Heinlein describes something similar in an earlier book.

Yancey elected to use atmospheric braking in any case to save his reaction mass for future use... The ship's company spent a crowded, tiring fifty-six hours shut up in the control room while the ship dipped into the clouds of Venus and out again, a bit deeper and a bit slower on each round trip. The ship grew painfully hot and the time spent in free space on each lap was hardly enough to let her radiate what she picked up...
From Space Cadet, by Robert Heinlein.
Published by Scribner's Sons in 1948
Additional resources -

Heinlein also refers to this idea in his 1941 novel Methuselah's Children; here's a quote:

It looked like - yes, it was a "Joyboat Junior", a little private stratoyacht, suitable only for point-to-point trajectory, of at the most for rendezvous with a satellite provided the satellite could refuel it for the return leg.

There was no fuel for it here. A lightning pilot possibly could land that tin toy without power and still walk away from it... provided he had the skill to play Skip-to-M'Lou in and out of the atmosphere while nursing his skin temperatures - but Lazarus wouldn't want to try it. No, sir!

Fritz Leiber also described a similar process in his 1962 story The Snowbank Orbit. I can't find a quote online.

Thanks to an anonymous reader for providing the tip and the story reference.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Space Cadet
  More Ideas and Technology by Robert Heinlein
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