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Rocket system that boosts a spacecraft into Earth orbit or beyond Earth's gravitational pull. A wide variety of launch vehicles have been used to lift payloads ranging from satellites weighing a few pounds (or kilograms) to large modular components of space stations. Most launch vehicles are expendable (one-use) systems; many early ones were derived from intercontinental ballistic missiles (seeICBM). The Saturn V, which launched the spacecraft that carried humans to the Moon (seeApollo), had three stages (seestaged rocket). The U.S. space shuttle system (from 1981) represents a significant departure from expendable launch vehicles in that it is partially reusableits manned orbiting component is designed for numerous flights, and its solid rocket boosters can be recovered and refurbished.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on launch vehicle, visit Britannica.com.