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Retro Rocket

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A diagram anatomised the stages of the Saturn V already shed by the Apollo 11. The spacecraft now looked surprisingly like the bullets of Verne or Méliès, though sleek aluminium-steel-glass-phenolic rather than rivet-studded brass.
Moon Moon Moon, by Kim Newman

During different eras, people had different stereotypical visions of future spacecraft. Sometimes it came from the movies, and sometimes it bled into the movies from real life. This design is a classic — it's the standard pointy-nosed, sits-on-its-fins spaceship. This piece of Raygun Gothic comes from the time when T-bird fins were actually seen as futuristic rather than retro. Spaceships were more likely to be referred to as rocketships by excited seven-year-old boys, and the designs could feed off the ongoing space race and concurrent developments which were based around a long steel tube with a pointy tip that had fins on the bottom and belched flames out of its base to reach for the skies.

While once the definitive spaceship image, nowadays you generally only see these as parody or homage. Their typically phallic shape is a common target for mockery. However, with the advent of vertically landing reusable rockets with cold-formed stainless steel hulls, this design is now starting to become Vindicated by History.

A few features are particularly common. The design will often necessitate a vertical take-off, and the fins are frequently used for the rocket to stand on, leading to one of the style's alternate names: "tailsitters". Thus many will have three or four fins. Also, unlike modern rockets, these typically don't discard stages to lighten their load for the trip, so the entire rocket goes into space and back. Note that in a setting with more than one style of spacecraft, this design will generally be used by humans. Aliens generally used its nemesis — the Flying Saucer. For the modern equivalent, see Standard Human Spaceship.

Only very indirectly related to the small rocket motors used to provide retrograde thrust to an orbiting spacecraft (which even the earliest Space Race orbiters had).


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    Anime & Manga 

  • Space Fantasy Commemorative Stamp Booklet:
    • The stamp on the left has three dart-like silver ships, with excessive fins and one or more thrusters.
    • The humans in the centre stamp are wearing jetpacks and a snub-nosed bubble helmet that makes them look like their suit is designed for rocketing around in the atmosphere.
    • The stamp on the right has three red rockets with an oblong shape and three fins. A line of these ships appears, growing smaller and smaller, in each stamp to the left of this one, ending in the centre.

    Comic Books 
  • Black Hammer's Colonel Weird pilots a cigar-shaped, lands-on-its-fins rocket ship, befitting his role as a Raygun Gothic space adventurer gone horribly wrong.
  • These showed up in a number of stories from the Disney Ducks Comic Universe by Carl Barks, such as "Island in the Sky" and "The Loony Lunar Gold Rush". This was back in the early 1960s, when The Space Race was in full swing and the idea of space travel was very popular.
  • Inverted in the Legion of Super-Heroes (originally published in 1958) — but it's not the ''trope'' that was inverted: their clubhouse was shaped like this kind of rocket, point down in the ground!
  • Superman is almost always said to have arrived on Earth as a baby in a "rocketship", and the little ship is almost always depicted this way. John Byrne made it round instead of pointy, but even his version was recognizably a rocket. The only major exception is the movie version, which was a spiky crystalline sphere.
  • Tintin's rocket from Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon is an interesting case as it's combined with a frighteningly prescient depiction of the Cold War space program. Blueprints and launchpad shown here. The plot is only slightly similar to the American film of the same year, and the rocket's external appearance is based on the German V2. In its trips to the Moon and back, a 180-degree rotation has to be performed mid-flight to ensure that it lands with its tail fins down.
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: While the Amazons have space planes there are plenty of nice aesthetically pleasing rockets used for space travel, like the Venus Rocket built at Holliday College. Though that rocket was not meant to be manned, instead containing instruments to gather data about the planet Venus.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animation 
  • Syndrome's rocket in The Incredibles resembles retrofuturistic concepts of rockets with giant fins (considering it takes place in a 1960s-esque setting), although it has a re-entry/glider stage that separates from an expendable booster, and doesn't land vertically.

    Films — Live-Action 

  • Robert A. Heinlein:
  • In the Hyperion Cantos, the Consul's starship is specifically designed to fit the Platonic ideal of "space ship". This ideal, at least according to the author, is that of the Retro Rocket.
  • The Corellian Trilogy features an outdated Selonian-built starship that launches and lands vertically, with the crew seated facing what is the top of the ship while landed.
  • The anthology Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, which homages Planetary Romance stories set on Mars, has a rocketship on the cover.
  • Doctor Omega: How the spaceship Cosmos is described.
  • Pops a lot in early Ray Bradbury short stories, where this design is explicitly described as a standard method of interplanetary and interstellar travel in the future.
  • Oddly averted in the Perry Rhodan universe — for all the various shapes starships come in, one rarely if ever sees one of these. May be justified, though; the traditional rocket shape is optimized primarily for fast movement through an atmosphere (if only for purposes of breaking free of it before fuel runs out), and once a species gains FTL capability in this setting it probably also gets antigravity and at least some force field technology along with that, basically eliminating that concern and allowing ships to be designed with space travel in mind first and foremost.
  • The titular light freighter in Space Angel (by John Robert Maddox) is a classic tail-sitter.
  • Strangely, played mostly straight in Mikhail Akhmanov's Invasion, despite being written in 2005. It's not an homage or a parody either. The novel is set before humanity's first forays into interstellar space. The ships of the United Space Forces are even stated to be descendants of the old 20th century space rockets. While most of them tend to be based on the Moon, Mars, or Mercury, which helps them take off and land with the lower gravity and less dense (or nonexistent) atmosphere, a few are shown to land and take-off from a spaceport on Earth. Largely averted in the subsequent books, when Imported Alien Phlebotinum allows for larger, more powerful warships to be constructed that utilize Artificial Gravity for propulsion and for generating Earth-norm conditions aboard. Ships are no longer built with the floor facing the engines and the fact that the larger ones are at least a kilometer long means that they are also not designed to land on Earth.
  • The cyclotron-powered Comet used by Pulp Magazine hero Captain Future looks like an inverted teardrop (though not in the anime where it's an ISO Standard Human Spaceship).
  • The Space Merchants has a rocket fitting this description on the cover of the original Ballantine edition. It more or less fits the story's description of the Venus rocket as "the bloated child of the slim V-2's and stubby Moon rockets of the past."
  • My Best Science Fiction Story:
    • A very simple (and small) dart-like rocket with four large fins appears on the top of the 1949 Merlin Press cover, with a dotted line extending behind it to indicate constant velocity.
    • The cover of the 1954 Pocket Books version has a couple of light grey spaceships that look like darts flying above a city of domed habitats.
  • In the Michael Chabon semi-autobiographical novel "Moonglow", Chabon's maternal grandfather designs rockets based on the V-2 (see Real Life, below) specifically fitting this description, including reusable toy versions with parachutes.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This shows up in Doctor Who more than once.
    • Any human rocketship from the First and Second Doctor eras, in the '60s.
    • "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit": Sanctuary Base 6's escape rocket was deliberately modelled on the Moon rocket from Tintin.
    • "Planet of the Ood": Donna's reaction when she sees a rocket ship fly overhead is to call it a "proper rocket".
      "You've got a box, he's got a Ferrari!"
  • The Rocinante in The Expanse is shown in season 5 to be able to take off and land like a classic tailsitter.
  • Any spaceship in The Twilight Zone (1959) was either this or a Flying Saucer.

  • Analog:
    • The cover of the May 1940 issue has a dull chrome rocket taking off at night. In addition to the four small fins near the base where the main rocket fires, there's also two thin wings closer to the nose of the rocket.
    • The March 1941 cover has two silver spaceships on the cover, both are cigar-shaped with four fins on the "rear" end.
    • In May 1942's issue, on page 80 for "Beyond This Horizon", a rocket with a narrower nose than rear sits upon its lower fins. The people in the scene are tiny compared to it.
    • The cover of the October 1942 issue shows a dull red rocket sitting upright on the moon's surface, using its fins for landing gear.

  • Captain B. Zarr's "Rock-It" in The Party Zone, complete with bulbous nose up front and engine fins in the rear.
  • Flash Gordon features two war rockets with swept wings and ovoid bodies flying into battle.

    Puppet Shows 
  • The ancient (and now almost forgotten) Supermarionation sci-fi series Space Patrol both averted this trope and played it straight, as the spaceship used in that series (called the Galisphere or Galasphere) looked like the stereotypical space-station, with a central cylinder connected by cylindrical "spokes" to a toroidial ring.
  • Thunderbirds:
    • The craft Thunderbirds 1 and 3. One is a hypersonic plane based on 50s-60s high-tech fighters and X-planes (English Electric Lightning, X-5, X-15) and mid-50s VTOL designs like the XFV and XFY. The other is a rocket ship with a tripod of engines. Both essentially have the same overall shape and impact leading to many seven-year-olds' arguments about which one was better. Both fit very well into the trope, aside from TB 1's VTOL abilities in horizontal position.
    • The rocket ships in "Sun Probe" and "Day of Disaster" were each examples of this trope. The Sun Probe was a Vostok-style engine cluster with loads of extra fins and a full-on Retro Rocket stuck on the nose. The Martian Space Probe in "Day of Disaster"... Well, see for yourself.
    • Zero X, the spacecraft featured in the movie Thunderbirds Are Go, was at least a partial aversion of this trope. The main body is box-like rather than cylindrical, though it mounts rocket engines at the back, and the lifting bodies — wings which helps it take off and land horizontally like an aircraft — separate from it when it reaches the upper atmosphere on take-off and returns to the ship's base, ready to rejoin it when it came back to Earth. That was the idea, at least; they aren't very reliable, hence the plot of the movie!

  • Played with in Nebulous. Nebulous instructs Paula to 'fire retro-rockets', resulting in a fun whooshy noise. Then he asks her to 'fire those more modern-looking ones', resulting in an action-movie-ish Bang, Bang, BANG.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Rocket Age loves its traditional gleaming rocket ships and plays them to the hilt. They land on their fins, they burn radium for fuel and pack Ray cannons, most even have self destruct buttons. These rocket ships have it all, and to top it off, the inventors were Goddard, Einstein and Tesla.
  • These are used for most factions in War Rocket, complete with Flying Saucers for aliens, though they still have a fore-and-aft design that ensures that they work like the rockets anyway.
  • Many vessels are designed as retro rockets in Slipstream.
  • Most adaptations of Flash Gordon would obviously have these, including the new Savage Worlds - based RPG.
  • TSR Hobbies' old Buck Rogers In The25th Century setting, along with its computer adaptation, had ships with more advanced systems in them, guided weapons, less obsolete-looking computers, holographic displays etc, but were most often still shaped like a stereotypical atomic rocketship.

    Theme Parks 
  • Disney Theme Parks has the Moonliner rocket, originally designed back in the 50's as a vision of future Trans World Airlines (TWA) travel. It was later sponsored by Douglas before being removed for renovations in 1967, but there are three smaller scale models of it extant today-one at the national airline history museum, one on the old TWA building, and one near where the original rocket stood in Disneyland's Tomorrowland now helping promote Coca-Cola.

    Video Games 
  • Star Control: Syreen ship, Penetrator "is shaped after the V-2 rocket, and a dildo."
  • Myst: There's one of these. It doesn't actually take you anywhere, but just holds the link to the Selenitic Age. (You link into an identical spaceship, a remnant of the fact that at one point in the game's development you were supposed to fly in the spaceship.)
  • Eastward: Isabel's rocket made by Alva. Though she uses it for exploration rather than space travel.
  • Escape Velocity: Many of the ships, from the humble scout ship in the original to the... rather engorged Igazra from Override.
  • In Gene Wars the main design of humanoid spaceships is a classic futuristic rocket, seen between levels, when you start a level, and when you grab more or different specialists.
  • Captain Blasto, from Blasto, uses a retro rocket as his main source of transportation.
  • Super Mario Bros.
    • Rockets in the Mario Party series all take the retro-design, including mini-vehicles depending on the board.
    • Super Mario Galaxy: Among the debris in the Space Junk Galaxy is an abandoned rocketship in this style. Mario cannot get inside of it and it has its own gravitational field (except for its fins), so gameplay-wise, it's simply an oddly-shaped planetoid.
    • In Super Mario 3D World, rocketships take you to the post-game bonus worlds.
    • In Super Mario Odyssey, some levels have a small rocketship that Mario can capture with Cappy, leading to a sub-level.
  • Net:Zone: The Vulcan is a Cyberspace variant, a virtual vehicle that takes the player to Cycorp's Elimination Facility. Docking clamps hold the Vulcan in place when it lands.
  • Pikmin: The S.S. Dolphin and Hocotate Ship are stout, cigar-shaped rockets with pointed ends, a row of circular windows down their sides, and a trio of fins around their exhaust vents whose tips they stand on when at rest.
  • Fallout: Nearly all rockets in the Series. Within the games' alternate history it appears that early rockets of the 1950s and '60s were like the real world's: the Clarabella 7 seen aboard Motherboard Zeta along with other abductees vehicles is near-identical to the single-man Mercury capsules used for the USA's first manned launches (all Mercury capsules even included 7 in their name). As time progressed into the late '60s, things begin to diverge: the Valiant 11 lunar lander in the Capital Wasteland's Museum of Technology, resembles the planned soviet counterpart 'LK Objekt' rather than the real-world NASA Lunar Module (though unlike LK Object and like the real lander, it seats two rather than only one). Like all of Fallout's technology, into the 21st century things more and more resembled what concept artists and science fiction magazines of the 1950s expected: the U.S.'s final manned rocket, the circa-2020 Delta IX seen crashed in the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3 and the front courtyard of the REPCONN Factory in Fallout New Vegas was a nuclear powered rocket used for lunar excursions that resembles the classic Retro Rocket, though with wings in addition to fins, implying it could have been intended to take off or land like an airplane. Interestingly the Fallout 3 version features a black-and-yellow color scheme very similar to the real-world North American X-15 rocketplane's.
    • In addition to this, the REPCONN Factory in Fallout New Vegas and the neighboring town of Novac's gas station feature more classic, unwinged retro rockets.
  • The Blasterpals have a purple one in Math Blaster: In Search of Spot. It gets shot down in Math Blaster: Secret of the Lost City.
  • In Rolo to the Rescue, Rolo takes a brief excursion to the moon on a wooden rocket.
  • RymdResa has one of these among the eight ships available for you to pilot, along with a Flying Saucer, to boot.
  • It is perfectly possible to build a ship like this in Kerbal Space Program and send it to orbit, thanks to the significantly smaller Δv-budget required to reach Kerbin orbit, compared to Earth. Not particularly efficient, but possible.
  • In Sonic Colors and subsequent games where it's present, the Orange Wisp, which grants Sonic the power of the Orange Rocket (allowing for very tall, very fast vertical leaps), is based on this kind of spaceship. It also has two vertically arranged eyes resembling the windows on such a vehicle. Sonic, once granted the power, takes on a similar shape too, with his spikes radiating from the bottom like rocketship fins.


    Western Animation 
  • The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Most of the rockets Jimmy builds are of this type, with an open cockpit on the side because who cares about vacuum. In the movie his first rocket appeared to be cobbled together from trash cans but his second rocket was built from a coin-operated ride modeled after a 50s sci-fi rocket so justified.
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force: The Aqua Teens uses one of these rockets to travel to a large Banana Planet. With it made of rusty metal and its controls of woods, it managed to stay without breaking apart.
  • Bugs Bunny shorts:
  • The Planet Express Ship from Futurama, though it's horizontally oriented with extendible landing gear. Note the various late Fifties-ish elements in the show: In a show named after a 1939 & 1964 World Fair exhibit, a man who dresses like James Dean is impressed by a Retro Rocket.
  • Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century: Both Dodgers' and Marvin's ships. Likewise, Dodgers' ship in the 2003 Duck Dodgers TV series.
  • In Wallace & Gromit: A Grand Day Out, the duo build an orange rocket of this design. Some later episodes feature smaller versions of this rocket as decorations in their house.
  • The Space Ranger ships in Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.
  • The spaceships being built by the Middleton Space Center, and occasionally used by the heroes in Kim Possible.
  • The homemade space cruiser in Winston Steinburger and Sir Dudley Ding Dong.
  • Space Angel was one of the earliest SF cartoons made for TV. The hero ship, the Starduster was a classic example of this trope, being a long cylinder with a tapered nose and three large wings/fins. It landed and took off from a planetary surface in a vertical attitude, but moved through space and docked at its base, the space station Evening Star, "horizontally", which required the crew seats and control panels to rotate from one position to the other. Since the series was made in 1962-4, this may have been a forerunner of Thunderbird 1's similar ability.

    Real Life 
  • The Liberty Ship is a proposal for a nuclear-powered surface-to-orbit heavy cargo booster. It would have enough delta-V to not only be single stage to orbit but would use its engines to deorbit and land instead of using aerobraking
  • The Kankoh-maru is a Japanese proposal for a chemical-powered reusable single-stage manned orbital launch vehicle which can carry 50 paying tourists into low Earth orbit (mass production and very high flight rates would mean that the cost of a ticket would only be $20,000, compared to an orbital trip today costing 1000 times as much). It does not exactly look like the Retro Rocket, but the operating principle is quite similar: it is a tailsitter that would take off and land vertically.
  • The Delta Clipper was an attempt to make a reusable rocket SSTO. A prototype was built, but the program was cancelled before any actual single-stage-to-orbit vehicles were produced.
  • Although the whole rocket doesn't go to space, the spacecraft/rocket company SpaceX operates a reusable version of their Falcon 9 launch vehicle, with its first stage returning to and landing back at the launch site on its tail, with rocket propulsion and landing gear.
    • However, SpaceX's Interplanetary Transport System, later renamed the "BFR" and then again the SpaceX Starship is basically the closest thing to a modernized version of the Retro Rocket. Both the first stage and the interplanetary spacecraft on top are designed to land in a tailsitting configuration. The redesign unveiled in September 2018 even sits on its fins (although not any more as of 2021)! The proposed design even has a stainless steel hull, giving it the classic chromed-out look.
  • The obscure (at the time) Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky developed a design back in 1903, involving the teardrop-hull shape but without fins.
  • The use of this design for sci-fi spacecraft in the post-1945 period would have been heavily influenced by what was known about German V-weapons: until the late 1950's, the V-2's were the only man-made rockets that had ever been outside the boundaries of Earth's atmosphere, albeit only to gain enough height on the way up to describe a parabola with sufficient momentum to bring them down over London. The drawing-board designs for even larger rockets capable of hitting New York or Moscow were also public-domain knowledge. The V-2 was in every visible respect a retro-rocket of tail sitter configuration ... except it wasn't meant to land. At least not safely.
  • The Hugo Award trophy is in this shape.
  • The logo for the British comics and sci-fi collectibles shop Forbidden Planet.
  • The German Chaos Computer Club has this thing.
  • The focus of Atomic Rockets.