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"[Science fiction] is the one literary medium left in which we have a free hand. We can do any damn thing we please."
- Alfred Bester

Shuttle Ship  
  A spacecraft that could take off from a planet, rendezvous with an object in orbit, and fly back to the surface like a glider.  

The Nautilus, a passenger spacecraft, was in orbit around Venus. What was the best way for a passenger like Don Harvey to get to the surface?

A shuttle ship up from the surface could leave any spot on Venus, rendezvous with the ship in orbit, then land on its port of departure or on any other point having expended a theoretical minimum of fuel. As soon as the Nautilus had parked, such shuttles began to swarm up to her. They were more airplane than spaceship, for, although each was sealed and pressurized to operate outside the atmosphere while making contact with orbiting spaceships, each was winged and was powered with ramjet atmosphere engines as well as with rocket jets. Like frogs, they were adapted to two media.

A shuttle would be launched to catapult from the surface, her ramjets would take hold and she would climb on her wings, reaching in the thin, cold heights of the upper stratosphere speeds in excess of three thousand miles an hour. There, as her ramjets failed for want of air, her rocket jets would take over and kick her forward to orbiting speed of around twelve thousand miles an hour and permit her to match in with a spaceship.

A nice maneuver! It required both precise mathematical calculation of times, orbits, fuel expenditure, and upper air weather, and piloting virtuosity beyond mathematical calculation - but it saved pennies.

From Between Planets, by Robert Heinlein.
Published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1951
Additional resources -

And how could such a ship find its way safely back to a designated landing site on the surface of the planet? By using, as Heinlein points out, the energy it had already built up in gaining orbit:

Once the shuttle was loaded at the spaceship it was necessary only to nudge it with its rockets against the orbital direction whereupon the shuttle would drop into a lower orbit which would eventually intersect the atmosphere and let the pilot take a free ride back to the surface, glider fashion, killing his terrible speed by dipping ever lower into the thickening air. Here again the pilot must be an artist, for he must both kill his momentum and conserve it so that it would take him where he wanted to go.
The United States started designing the similar Space Shuttle starting in 1968, before the successful moon landings of the Apollo program. The successful launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981 is shown below.

(Space Shuttle Columbia)

Note that in Heinlein's "design" the shuttle ship uses a catapult to reach ramjet speed; rocket engines are used only in the last part of the launch. The actual Space Shuttle uses a large external fuel tank with solid fuel boosters to reach orbit.

See articles on the Space Shuttle, ramjets and finally a proposed catapult system, the Launch Ring Magnetic Launch System .

Thanks to Larry for pointing this one out, and supplying the references.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Between Planets
  More Ideas and Technology by Robert Heinlein
  Tech news articles related to Between Planets
  Tech news articles related to works by Robert Heinlein

Shuttle Ship-related news articles:
  - Shuttle Atlantis Landing Video, As Per Heinlein
  - SABRE Orbital Jet Engine Breakthrough
  - SKYLON Space Plane Gets Boost

Articles related to Spacecraft
Laser-Powered Spacecraft To Explore The Solar System
SKYLON Space Plane Gets Boost
Europe's Cheops To Look For Habitable Planets
SpaceX Dragon First Private Craft To Dock With ISS

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