Atomic Rockets


Ask anybody taking airplane piloting lessons and they'll tell you that taking off is easy, the incredibly hard part landing. At least landing safely.

Naturally this is an order of magnitude harder when doing a tailsitting rocket (Vertical takeoff, vertical landing or VTVL) landing, which is basically a controlled crash. Try playing a few games of Lunar Lander to get a feel for it.

It was the SDIO that built DC/X and flew it many times. General Graham, Max Hunter, and I talked the head of SDIO (VP Dan Quayle in his capacity as Chairman of the National Space Council) into building the DC/X. It flew straight up, moved sideways, and landed on a tail of fire just as God and Robert Heinlein intended rockets to do.

From Chaos Manor Debates by Jerry Pournelle (2007)

Our Moon being an airless planet, a torchship can land on it. But the Tom Paine, being a torchship, was really intended to stay in space and be serviced only at space stations in orbit; she had to be landed in a cradle. I wish I had been awake to see it, for they say that catching an egg on a plate is easy by comparison. Dak was one of the half dozen pilots who could do it.

From DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein, 1956

Landing in Lava

Most of the potent engines have exhausts measured in thousands of degrees. What about landing? We don't want our ships to touch down on a new planet only to immediately sink out of sight in a self-created sea of lava.

(We will ignore that unpleasant little man in the front row who is asking loudly: why don't we keep the rocket in orbit and land with the small shuttle we carried along?)

As a wild guess, the exhaust temperature is approximately 100 K * Ve2. So an exhaust velocity of 20,000 m/s is on the order of 40,000 K.

The particle energy(approximately the temperature inside the engine) is

Ae = (0.5 * Am * Av2) / B


  • Ae = particle energy (Kelvin)
  • Am = mass of particle (g) (1.6733e-24 grams for monatomic hydrogen)
  • Av = exhaust velocity (cm/s)
  • B = Boltzmann's constant: 1.38e-16 (erg K-1)

But more to the point is total plume energy.

Fp = (F * Ve) / 2


  • Fp = thrust power (watts)
  • F = thrust (newtons)
  • Ve = exhaust velocity (m/s)

(Note that exhaust velocity is in two different units in the two equations)

[1] Exhaust power. Say we have a gas core rocket with an exhaust velocity of 50,000 m/s and 1,000,000 newtons of thrust. We've got 25,000,000,000 watts on our hands (25 gigawatts). Say that the exhaust is concentrated mainly in a 10 meter diameter circle on the final descent. The area is about 80 square meters, for a heat flux of roughly 300 megawatts per square meter. Which will vaporize the surface layer of about anything. The question becomes: how deep?

[2] Heat radiation. We're talking about very high temperatures here, so maybe the surface might radiate heat away faster than the exhaust deposits it? If nothing else, it will give a rough upper limit to the temperatures involved. The 300 MW/m2 flux correspond roughly to black-body radiation at 8500 K. So the temperatures may well be of that order of magnitude.

[3] Heat Conduction. Let's say the surface gets really hot. How fast is the heat conducted below the surface? Many rocks seem to have conductivities on the order of 2 W/m-K or so. At that rate, the temperature gradient would have to be incredibly high to balance the influx; 150 MK/m. I suspect that indicates that the surface would probably ablate to vapour and escape, with only the thinnest layer liquid at any given time. Maybe a micrometre or so on average.

[4] Quantity vaporized. As a rough guideline, many rocks at normal temperatures have heat capacities of about 1 kJ/kg-K. Extrapolating wildly, I could assume that they don't vary by too much at higher temperatures. If their temperature is raised on the order of 7000 K, then they will carry off something like 7 MJ/kg. Now, we can probably assume a density of about 3000 kg/m3, so that's 21 GJ/m3. If the final part of the landing takes about 20 seconds, that's up to about 23 m3 of rock. Dividing by the assumed area, we get a very shallow crater about 30 cm deep (about a foot).

Timothy Little

So, based on the above figures I'd guess that a plume of exhaust like that would erode the surface, breaking it down into vapour or even decomposing it, with the resulting gases dissipating rapidly. With heat conduction so low compared to the incoming energy, there simply won't be enough time for a pool of lava to form. Any liquid would be blasted outward by superhot gases, vaporizing and then recondensing along the way.

My guess is that you'd get a broad but shallow crater, surrounded for quite some distance by ash condensed from the escaping gases and of course any debris that might have been carried along for the ride.

Timothy's masterful analysis does have some alarming consequences. Considering that we might be using a gas core atomic rocket, this means when it lands it becomes a lean, mean, fallout machine.


The poor man's way of landing on a planet with an atmosphere is by utilizing aerobraking. Pretty much all of NASA's manned rockets use this method. What you do is equip your spacecraft with a streamlined heat shield, and use air friction to eliminate your deltaV. Hopefully you can reduce the deltaV to zero before you run out of either heat shield (i.e., "burning up in re-entry") or altitude (i.e., "auger in").

The advantage is that it allows landing without requiring a powerful engine (which is a problem with tiny landing boats or inhabitants with strict laws about nuclear radiation). The disadvantage is there is a limit to the deltaV that can be shed, your trajectory has to be incredibly on course, and only very few planets and moons in our solar system have atmosphere. Not to mention the fact that most heat shields have to be replaced after each use, which was one of the major drawbacks of the Space Shuttle.

The deltaV limit is due to a couple of factors. The faster you shed deltaV, the more heat the heat shield will have to cope with, and there is a limit to the heat shield's ability to cope. There is also a limit to the amount of atmosphere you can pass through with a given trajectory, but it is possible to plot clever paths that loop back and pass through the atmosphere repeatably.

There is some current research into magneto-hydrodynamic force fields as heat shields. You can read more about it here.

Your trajectory has to be dead on course. If you are too steep, the generated heat will cause heat shield failure. If you are too shallow, you will ricochet off the atmosphere on a one way trip into the big dark.

Terrestrial planets with atmospheres include Venus, Earth, Mars, Titan, and maybe Pluto. All the gas giants have atmospheres, so much in fact that the pressure will eventually implode your ship. As a side note, aerobraking can be used with gas giants in order to change one's trajectory instead of landing. This was done in the movie 2010, The Year We Make Contact, where they used a ballute as a heat shield.

I don’t think any of us really trusted the Nerva-K under our landing craft.

Think it through. For long trips in space, you use an ion jet giving low thrust over long periods of time. The ion motor on our own craft had been decades in use. Where gravity is materially lower than Earth’s, you land on dependable chemical rockets. For landings on Earth and Venus, you use heat shields and the braking power of the atmosphere. For landing on the gas giants—but who would want to?

The Nerva-class fission rockets are used only for takeoff from Earth, where thrust and efficiency count. Responsiveness and maneuverability count for too much during a powered landing. And a heavy planet will always have an atmosphere for braking.

Pluto didn’t.

For Pluto, the chemical jets to take us down and bring us back up were too heavy to carry all that way. We needed a highly maneuverable Nerva-type atomic rocket motor using hydrogen for reaction mass.

And we had it. But we didn’t trust it.

From Wait It Out by Larry Niven (1968), collected in All The Myriad Ways

...From the outside there was no evidence of damage or repair. Part of the heat shield hung below the cutter's nose like a great shovel blade, exposing the control room blister, windows, and the snout of the cutter's main armament: a laser cannon...

...The starboard air lock had been reconnected to the embassy ship. They left by the port side. Lenin's boat crew had already rigged lines from the auxiliary vessel to the cutter. The boat was almost a twin for MacArthur's cutter, a flat-topped lifting body with a shovel-blade reentry shield hanging below the nose...

From The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)

The ship was now rocking noticeably, like a small boat in a choppy sea. Was that normal? wondered Floyd. He was glad that he had Zenia to worry about; it took his mind away from his own fears. Just for a moment, before he managed to expel the thought, he had a vision of the walls suddenly glowing cherry red, and caving in upon him. Like the nightmare fantasy of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum', which he'd forgotten for thirty years.

But that would never happen. If the heat shield failed, the ship would crumble instantly, hammered flat by a solid wall of gas. There would be no pain; his nervous system would not have time to react before it ceased to exist. He had experienced more consoling thoughts, but this one was not to be despised.

From 2010 by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1982)

Landing Legs

As a side note, there is a good reason for having either three landing legs/fins or adjustable landing legs. Have you ever had to sit on a stool or chair with four legs, and one of the legs was shorter than the other? You sort of rock back and forth. This is annoying for a seated person, but can be disastrous for a sixty meter tall rocketship. In Andre Norton's space novels, the height of a pilot's skill was to make a "perfect three-fin landing".

The reason for the rocking is that three points automatically determine a plane, but four or more points are not guaranteed to. If you have four or more, the landing jacks had better be adjustable, or you will only be able to land on a perfectly flat surface. Don't even think about a landing on a random spot on the rocky planes of Luna.

Of course there is an argument for four or more landing legs. Imagine you are looking at the rocket from overhead. Draw dotted lines from the foot pad of each leg to the adjacent pads. With three legs you'll have a triangle. The key point is that if from your overhead view the rocket's center of gravity moves outside of the triangle, the rocket will topple over and crash.

This can happen if you have the misfortune to be landing on a slope, and a single pad touches down first on the up slope section. As the other two pads lower, the already landed pad will force the rocket off vertical until it topples. The rocket can also tip a bit if it is moving a bit sideways as it comes down. The two pads bracketing the sideways direction can dig in and stop while the nose of the rocket is still moving, causing a tip.

The advantage of four pads is that now you have the dotted lines forming a square. This increases the distance the center of gravity has to move in order to topple, which increases your safely margin.

If you go with more than three landing pads, just make the landing legs adjustable in length to deal with the "rocking stool" problem.

Mike Williams points out the extra mass problem of four landing pads:

A possibly significant advantage of three landing jacks is that they all get approximately evenly loaded when you land on an uneven surface. With four jacks you either have to build them strong enough that the heavily loaded jacks can take the strain, or add some sort of compensating mechanism (which would require extra mass).

If the feet are distance D from the centre, then with 4 feet the rocket can be stable with the center of gravity up to cos(45°)*D from the centre (i.e., 0.707*D). For a ship with 3 feet, to achieve the same stability, you'd need to extend the feet to be 1.414*D from the centre.

(ed note: Ship with 3 feet can be stable up to foot distance from center of gravity cos(60°)*D or 0.5*D.

Since 0.707 / 0.5 = 1.414, for a three-footed rocket to have the same stability as a four-footed rocket it would have to have its feet at a distance D3 from the center, where D3 = 1.414 * D4)

It may well be that three such extensions require less mass than adding a fourth leg.

There are probably swings and roundabouts, with one system being slightly superior than the other depending on other factors of the design, such as the mass of the feet (which still mass the same when you increase the length of three legs, but if you have four legs you need to budget for a whole extra foot).

Mike Williams

But if safety is primary, Bernard Peek notes that current European safety legislation requires office chairs to have five castors so that losing one is not a catastrophic failure.

Sean Willard brought to my attention an important mathematical proof. It has been proven that if:

  1. you have a four legged structure
  2. all the legs are exactly the same length
  3. the ground is a continuous surface with a local slope of no more than fifteen degrees
  4. you rotate the structure around the plane of the feet
it will always be possible to find a position where the structure does not rock back and forth. And you won't have to rotate the feet more than ninety degrees, either.

Please note that the non-rocking position is not guaranteed to be level. If you want the intricate details, you will find them in this paper.

Sean goes on to say:

One could therefore devise a system comprising high-resolution landing radar or lidar (perhaps four antennae, one on each leg), computer, and attitude jets, to automatically rotate the ship as it lands to the optimum orientation. It would be quite difficult for a human helmsman, but maybe not fiendishly so, given the right instrumentation.

Sean Willard

Recovering from a Topple

While landed, for extra safety, keep the control moment gyroscope clutched and powered up. This will help keep the ship from toppling.

However, what if you do have a catastrophic failure and your rocket topples over? If you are at a civilized spaceport, as you float in the burn-recovery medical tank, you can console yourself with the thought that the port will probably have the equipment required to restore your ship to an upright position. Provided, of course, that the ship didn't break its spine and that you or your insurance can cover the cost.

If your ship is a deep space explorer on an uncharted planet, and you have no communication system with which to yell for help, then you have a problem.

He was right, the digging was recent and it was not yet finished, for only half of the soil had been cleared away from around the fins of the ship. The cruiser had been buried after it had been landed, partly to help conceal it, partly to keep it steady in a proper position for a take-off where there was no cradle to hold it. If a storm here had battered it off fin level, with no port cranes to right it, the ship would be useless scrap until it rusted away.

From THE BEAST MASTER by Andre Norton, 1956

(ed note: Beowulf Shaeffer is in a flying car, while Bellamy is in a spacecraft called "Drunkard's Walk" with an unreasonably powerful engine. Bellamy is trying to kill Beowulf. Beowulf bashes his flying car into the side of Drunkard's Walk then crashes into the ground. Drunkard's Walk lands using a "gravity drag" {don't ask})

The car was on its nose in high fern grass. All the plastic windows had become flying shards, including the windshield; they littered the car. The windshield frame was crushed and bent. I hung from the crash web, unable to unfasten it with my crippled hands, unable to move even if I were free. And I watched the Drunkard's Walk, its fusion drive off, floating down ahead of me on its gravity drag. I didn't notice the anomaly then. I was dazed, and I saw what I expected to see: a spaceship landing. Bellamy? He didn't see it, either, but he would have if he'd looked to the side when he came down the landing ladder. He came down the ladder with his eyes fixed on mine and Emil's sonic in his hand. He stepped out into the fern grass, walked over to the car, and peered in through the bent windshield frame.

I could walk, barely. I could keep walking because he kept prodding the small of my back with the gun.

We were halfway to the ship when I saw it. The anomaly. I said, "Bellamy, what's holding your ship up?"

He prodded me. "Walk."

"Your gyros. That's what's holding the ship up."

He prodded me without answering. I walked. Any moment now he'd see ...

"What the —" He'd seen it. He stared in pure amazement, and then he ran. I stuck out a foot to trip him, lost my balance, and fell on my face. Bellamy passed me without a glance.

One of the landing legs wasn't down. I'd smashed it into the hull. He hadn't seen it on the indicators, so I must have smashed the sensors, too. The odd thing was that we'd both missed it, though it was the leg facing us.

The Drunkard's Walk stood on two legs, wildly unbalanced, like a ballet dancer halfway through a leap. Only her gyros held her monstrous mass against gravity. Somewhere in her belly they must be spinning faster and faster ... I could hear the whine now, high-pitched, rising ...

Bellamy reached the ladder and started up. He'd have to use the steering jets now, and quickly. With steering jets that size, the gyros — which served more or less the same purpose — must be small, little more than an afterthought.

Bellamy had almost reached the air lock when the ship screamed like a wounded god.

The gyros had taken too much punishment. That metal scream must have been the death agony of the mountings. Bellamy stopped. He looked down, and the ground was too far. He looked up, and there was no time. Then he turned and looked at me.

I read his mind then, though I'm no telepath.

Bey! What'll I DO?

I had no answer for him. The ship screamed, and I hit the dirt. Well, I didn't hit it; I allowed myself to collapse. I was on the way down when Bellamy looked at me, and in the next instant the Drunkard's Walk spun end for end, shrieking.

The nose gouged a narrow furrow in the soil, but the landing legs came down hard, dug deep, and held. Bellamy sailed high over my head, and I lost him in the sky. The ship poised, braced against her landing legs, taking spin from her dying flywheels. Then she jumped.

The landing legs acted like springs, hurling her somersaulting into the air. She landed and jumped again, screaming, tumbling, like a wounded jackrabbit trying to flee the hunter. I wanted to cry. I'd done it; I was guilty; no ship should be killed like this.

Somewhere in her belly the gyroscope flywheels were coming to rest in a tangle of torn metal.

The ship landed and rolled. Bouncing. Rolling. I watched as she receded, and finally the Drunkard's Walk came to rest, dead, far across the blue-green veldt.

I stood up and started walking.

I passed Bellamy on the way. If you'd like to imagine what he looked like, go right ahead.

It was nearly dark when I reached the ship.

What I saw was a ship on its side, with one landing leg up. It's hard to damage hullmetal, especially at the low subsonic speeds the Drunkard's Walk was making when she did all that jumping. I found the air lock and climbed in.

The lifesystem was a scrambled mess. Parts of it, the most rugged parts, were almost intact, but thin partitions between sections showed ragged, gaping holes. The flywheel must have passed here.

The bouncing flywheel hadn't reached the control cone.

Things lighted up when I turned on the communications board. I had to manipulate switches with the heel of my hand. I turned on everything that looked like it had something to do with communications, rolled all the volume knobs to maximum between my palms, and let it go at that, making no attempt to aim a com laser, talk into anything, or tap out code. If anything was working on that board — and something was delivering power, even if the machinery to use it was damaged — then the base would get just the impression I wanted them to have. Someone was trying to communicate with broken equipment.

From Grendel by Larry Niven (1968)

If the ship isn't too terribly huge, Isaac Kuo suggests that it might be possible to construct a sort of gigantic A-frame and raise the ship with cables. Isaac suggests attaching cables to the ship's nose and hoisting it vertical. The ship's landing jacks are repaired, if necessary, then the ship is lowered to stand on its own three feet.

Eric Tolle points out that care must be taken not to drag the ship's tail. He makes the brilliant suggestion that studying the engineering associated with Egyptian Obelisks would provide answers! In many ways it is the same problem.

Back in 1586 engineers lowered, moved, and erected the Vatican Obelisk (because it wasn't in the aesthetically perfect spot). The Obelisk is about 25 meters tall and weighs 330 tons. This isn't much smaller than the Polaris I worked out in the example. That was about 43 meters tall and massed 378 metric tons.

The Obelisk required about 140 horses and a year of work, but I'm sure things will go quicker with modern machinery and engineering (however, extra time will be required if the natives are shooting at you). The girders for the A-frame could be a standard feature with wilderness spacecraft, perhaps stored in the ship's core and extracted from the nose. Storing the girders as removable parts of the hull may make it easier to access, but they might be damaged in the initial topple.

Isaac says that avoiding tail dragging can be done by anchoring the tail with cables. But a better solution might be raising the ship by cables attached to the midpoint, instead of the nose. The ship is raised entirely free of the ground, then a cable attached to the tail is pulled to pivot the ship into proper nose-upward orientation. You might be able to get away with an A-frame only half the height of the ship.

Garon Whited points out some of the trade-offs:

There are substantial trade-offs, however, depending on which method you use. Midpoint lifting requires an A-frame to support the entire weight of the ship in whatever gravity you happen to be. Lifting the ship by the nose requires longer, but less sturdy members for the A-frame. Shorter, more sturdy members are more likely to survive the initial crash, but may very well mass more than the longer ones. Longer members may be "recycled" into shorter members if they are damaged. Shorter members may be replaced by native materials -- trees, stone blocks, etc -- provided such are of sufficient strength.

It all boils down to your ship design. How much emergency gear can you carry? Is it better to stock up on ship repair materials to maximize the chance of getting off that space-rock, or on survival equipment to stay alive until rescue comes? Which then brings us back to the question of how far out your ship is meant to go...

Garon Whited

If that fails, Eric suggest rolling the ship into a nearby lake or ocean and hoping that the ship floats with the nose uppermost. He notes that this will probably terminate the ship's warranty with extreme prejudice. One can hope that the heavy nuclear propulsion system will make the ship tail-heavy. However, Isaac points out that the huge propellant tank will tend to make the ship float sideways, with the propulsion system providing little or no tipping, much like the outboard motor on a speedboat.

Technobabble Landing Legs

The "uneven landing site" problem is so daunting that it is tempting for a science fiction author to invent incredibly high tech solutions that are unobtanium at best and technobabble at worse. Much like David Drake did in his classic series of novels about Hammer's Slammers. Mr. Drake noted the many problems of using caterpillar tracks for armored fighting vehicles. His solution was to make the tanks into hovercraft, using ducted fans so that they could float over irregular ground. All you need to make it work is to equip each tank with a fusion power source capable of supplying the electricity needs of California. Mr. Drake did analyze and accommodate the logical consequences of the tanks possessing so much electrical generation capacity, so this is a case of an author doing the job right.

I will note in passing the jaw-dropping stupidity of the landing legs on the starship Voyager. Not only would they not work, Star Trek starships as a general rule never have a need to land anyway. Shuttlecraft and transporters are a much more efficient solution. The Voyager is not designed to land, it probably cannot support its own structure without technobabble force fields reinforcing the internal girders, the same goes for the ludicrously tiny landing gear, seven hundred thousand metric tons concentrated on those tiny foot pads will poke holes in solid bedrock, once landed the Voyager is suddenly vulnerable to all ground-based hazards, the list goes on and on. About the only reason for landing is to make flashy eye-candy images for the audience in a desperate attempt to prop up the TV ratings.

The Nerva-K behaved perfectly. We hovered for several minutes to melt our way through various layers of frozen gases and get ourselves something solid to land on. Condensing volatiles steamed around us and boiled below, so that we settled in a soft white glow of fog lit by the hydrogen flame.

Black wet ground appeared below the curve of the landing skirt. I let the ship drop carefully, carefully … and we touched.

It took us an hour to check the ship and get ready to go outside.

I was screwing down my helmet when Jerome started shouting obscenities into the helmet mike. I cut the checklist short and followed him out.

One look told it all.

The black wet dirt beneath our landing skirt had been dirty ice, water ice mixed haphazardly with lighter gases and ordinary rock. The heat draining out of the Nerva jet had melted that ice. The rocks within the ice had sunk, and so had the landing vehicle, so that when the water froze again it was halfway up the hull. Our landing craft was sunk solid in the ice.

We did have one chance. The landing vehicle was designed to move about on Pluto’s surface; and so she had a skirt instead of landing jacks. Half a gravity of thrust would have given us a ground effect, safer and cheaper than using the ship like a ballistic missile. The landing skirt must have trapped gas underneath when the ship sank, leaving the Nerva-K engine in a bubble cavity.

We could melt our way out.

I know we were as careful as two terrified men could be. The heat rose in the Nerva-K, agonizingly slow. In flight there would have been a coolant effect as cold hydrogen fuel ran through the pile. We couldn’t use that. But the environment of the motor was terribly cold. The two factors might compensate, or—Suddenly dials went wild. Something had cracked from the savage temperature differential. Jerome used the damper rods without effect. Maybe they’d melted. Maybe wiring had cracked, or resistors had become superconductors in the cold. Maybe the pile—but it doesn’t matter now.

After the fiasco with the Nerva-K, one of us had to go down and see how much damage had been done. That meant tunneling down with the flame of a jet backpack, then crawling under the landing skirt. We didn’t talk about the implications. We were probably dead. The man who went down into the bubble cavity was even more probably dead; but what of it? Dead is dead.

I feel no guilt. I’d have gone myself if I’d lost the toss.

The Nerva-K had spewed fused bits of the fission pile all over the bubble cavity. We were trapped for good. Rather, I was trapped, and Jerome was dead. The bubble cavity was a hell of radiation.

From Wait It Out by Larry Niven (1968), collected in All The Myriad Ways

The standard science fiction gag is to support the spacecraft on the ground using technobabble "force fields" or "pressor/repulsor beams". These are fields or beams of as-yet undiscovered energy that are perfectly adjustable, capable of allowing for any ground level irregularities. They are also also somehow much stronger than steel girders or anything else composed of matter. Their main drawback is that they consume energy, and steel girders do not vanish if the energy becomes exhausted.

However, from the standpoint of basic physics it would imply that any hapless person who walked through one of the beams would be flattened into a thin layer of bloody goo under a crushing force of N where N is equal to the weight of the spacecraft divided by the number of landing leg beams.

But he had not eyes for it. To the west where avenue and buildings ended was the field and on it space ships, stretching away for miles — fast little military darts, stubby Moon shuttles, winged ships that served the satellite stations, robot freighters, graceless and powerful. But directly in front of the gate hardly half a mile away was a great ship that he knew at once, the starship Asgard. He knew her history, Uncle Chet had served in her. A hundred years earlier she had been built out in space as a space-to-space rocket ship; she was then the Prince of Wales. Years passed, her tubes were ripped out and a mass-conversion torch was kindled in her; she became the Einstein. More years passed, for nearly twenty she swung empty around Luna, a lifeless, outmoded hulk. Now in place of the torch she had Horst-Conrad impellers that clutched at the fabric of space itself; thanks to them she was now able to touch Mother Terra. To commemorate her rebirth she had been dubbed Asgard, heavenly home of the gods.

Her massive, pear-shaped body was poised on its smaller end, steadied by an invisible scaffolding of thrust beams. Max knew where they must be, for there was a ring of barricades spotted around her to keep the careless from wandering into the deadly loci.

From Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein (1953)

In Isaac Asimov's The Currents Of Space, the ships are equipped with an unobtanium "diamagnetic field", which allows the ships to float out to the launch pad. Diamagnetism is when a substance is repelled by both poles of a magnet, but it is unclear if such levitation is possible by the laws of physics.

The ship rolled out of the hangar like an air-borne whale, moving slowly, its diamagnetized hull clearing the smooth-packed clay of the field by three inches.

Terens watched Genro handling the controls with finger-tip precision. The ship was a live thing under his touch. The small replica of the field that was upon the visiplate shifted and changed with each tiny motion of every contact.

The ship came to a halt, pinpointed at the lip of a take-off pit. The diamagnetic field strengthened progressively towards the ship's prow and it began tipping upward. Terens was mercifully unaware of this as the pilot room turned on its universal gimbals to meet the shifting gravity. Majestically, the ship's rear flanges fitted into the appropriate grooves of the pit. It stood upright, pointing to the sky.

The duralite cover of the take-off pit slipped into its recess, revealing the neutralized lining, a hundred yards deep, that received the first energy thrusts of the hyperatomic motors.

From The Currents Of Space by Isaac Asimov

Water Landings

In Heinlein's Time For The Stars, the torchship Lewis & Clark avoids both the "uneven landing site" problem and the "vaporizing the landing site" problem by the simple expedient of only landing in oceans. This is also true of the landing shuttles carried by starships in Jerry Pournelle's CoDominion universe. Alas, this won't work very well for a non-interstellar spacecraft, as the only planet in the solar system with an ocean is Terra (with the possible exception of a methane ocean on Titan. Some of Jupiter's moons may have oceans of water, but these are covered by many miles of ice.)

Unhappy Landings