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Related: Why will Superheavy/Starship have a landing pad so close to the launch pad?

Most launch vehicles are launched from somewhat complex launchpads with towers, erectors, flame trenches or deflectors, water deluge sprays, the actual pads themselves, service structures, pipes that are connected to the rocket until the last moment, supports for the base of the rocket, etc.

SpaceX's current rocket lower stages land on a flat landing pad, but they launch from a launch pad with all the above amenities.

Has any rocket launched from a plain-old flat surface (whether or not a specially prepared one) into orbit? Has any detailed proposal, that wasn't a spaceplane, proposed doing this?

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    $\begingroup$ Is a rocket that launches from a Transporter-Erector-Launcher truck, like the Chinese Smart Dragon-1, sufficient? Or the ascent stage of the Lunar Module? In general the rocket equation encourages leaving some things behind $\endgroup$ – Erin Anne Jun 9 at 9:19
  • $\begingroup$ I'm considering only rockets that launch from the actual ground. $\endgroup$ – ikrase Jun 9 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ Really not worth it - something has to hold the vehicle upright before launch, carrying the weight of those legs to orbit is prohibitive. (F9's legs only have to hold the empty booster) $\endgroup$ – JCRM Jun 9 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ IDK, but if your job is to put a spacecraft into orbit, then that's going to cost some \$\$\$\$, and you will be called upon to make the best use of those funds. If launching from a specially prepared site (flame trenches, deflectors, water deluge, ...) reduces your over-all costs, then isn't that what you're going to do? $\endgroup$ – Solomon Slow Jun 9 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ and for maximum efficiency, detach them at the very moment the vehicle launches @RussellBorogove ? $\endgroup$ – JCRM Aug 26 at 17:07
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No rocket has done except for those launched from airplanes, which take off from a flat runway. The reason are that the following would have to be true.

  1. The upper stage to such a rocket would have to be either solidly fueled, have long term liquid storage, or be fueled from the lower stage(s).
  2. The rocket would need to be small. A large rocket has needs for a fire suppression system, which no longer would really meet your flat requirements.
  3. The rocket would have to be stacked vertically. The fixtures on the site help to get the rocket vertical.
  4. The bottom needs to be held in place for a few seconds to get the engines up to full speed, unless the bottom stage is also solid fuel.

I have checked all of the solid upper stages, and each one of them uses a launch pad. The closest was the Black Arrow, pictured below (source).

enter image description here

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Hayabusa-2 landed on and then took of from the asteroid, so "unprepared surface".

Also the ascent stages of the Apollo Lunar Module were launched from the Moon back to orbit but they used the descent stage as a launchpad.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is this at such a low thrust level that they just used RCS thrusters? $\endgroup$ – ikrase Aug 31 at 7:13
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I think the closest to what you want is Start-1. Start-1 is a modified RT-2PM Topol ICBM equipped with extra stage to put the payload in orbit (Topol itself is suborbital). So besides the civilian application and orbital capacity it retains most of its ICBM features.

It's not exactly 'just a flat surface' - it's an all-terain vehicle. All prerequisites for launch are assured by that vehicle, the surface doesn't even need to be very flat (there are erectors that keep the vehicle level) and it takes 30 minutes from arrival on completely unprepared launch site until readiness for launch.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ Appears that "erectors" are ground-ruled out by the question. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 28 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble I wonder what OP would accept for setting the rocket upright instead. A bunch of people with ropes, pulling the rocket up, Amish barn wall style? $\endgroup$ – SF. Aug 29 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ I assume they are visualizing some Destination Moon type thing that sits on its fins. obviously the answer is going to be 'no' . $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 29 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ But what if to see that truck as the first stage of the rocket? Why only aircraft could count? $\endgroup$ – h22 Aug 30 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @h22 Especially that the launcher does actually act as initial propulsion - it ejects the rocket from the launch tube at considerable speed using compressed gas before the engine ignites, primarily to avoid the worst of the flame scorching the vehicle. $\endgroup$ – SF. Aug 31 at 0:32
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In BBC's four episode documentary "The Space Race" we see in the first episode how the Soviet Union launches the R1 (a copy of the German V2) and the R2 (which already has a stage that's separated) from a flat grass surface. The documentary is based on facts only, so it really must have been like this. The R1 and R2 could launch from a grass plain.

The Space Race episode 1

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  • $\begingroup$ V2 launched off a little table thing. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 29 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble V2 also launched from road vehicles. But the R1 launches from grass, with just a little metal hole below the engine, in the episode, as far as I remember. But the OP includes specially prepared underground into his question, so I think even the V2 would fit. $\endgroup$ – Giovanni Aug 29 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ v2rocket.com/start/scale/fr/azimut-tablebox.jpg $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 29 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble Something similar (but lower) was used for the R1 in the movie I think. It's a long time I've seen it, in another language. $\endgroup$ – Giovanni Aug 29 at 11:12
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To record no. No rocket has achieved orbit fired without a launch pad.

You could do it. It used to be part of our defense stategy. For decades the US had missile batteries placed across the country.

enter image description here

The Nike-Spartan missile had a altitude range of 300+ miles; that's space. And from launchers without launchpads.

enter image description here

US military tested classified rockets, and missiles out in the desert for decades though I don't believe they were orbital. Including prototype ICBMs, rockets, etc.

Rocket booster in Utah desert (horizontally) The Ascent stage for the Lunar Module took off on the Moons surface

Typically they launch rockets aimed for orbit from launchpads. Launching on bare dirt has issues, one you might kick up dust and debris, if it's sandy, the superheated silicon or ultra fine dust can cause respiratory problems.

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  • $\begingroup$ Does not answer the question that was asked. Has any rocket launched from a plain-old flat surface (whether or not a specially prepared one) into orbit? $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 28 at 20:43

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