Science: Soft-Landing Rocket

With its stiltlike legs and bulging dome, the ungainly contraption looked like a basketball balanced on a bar stool. But the strange rocket that the Navy unveiled last week at its China Lake (Calif.) Ordnance Test Station comes closest yet to solving one of the most difficult problems of space travel: how to make a soft landing on the moon or some even more distant airless planet.

Fully fueled with hypergolic liquids,* the Navy rocket weighs only 700 lbs.; the 1,300-lb. thrust of its engine can easily lift it off the ground. Setting the rocket down gently and upright is a much...

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