The Rocket Company
Patrick Stiennon and David M. Hoerr AIAA 2005
A thinly fictionalized description of a hypothetical reusable two-stage launch rocket system.
The book is "word technical" - numbers and descriptions, no equations. It describes an independent engineering development program well. The first question for any launch system is "why bother". The answer here is develop the launchers and sell them to hopeful launch companies for whatever reasons they have (dreams of profit, national glory, whatever). The next question is "if this is such a good idea, why hasn't it been done already?" and the answer is the broken government development process. The authors do NOT like so-called "systems engineering" and top-down design unless the "top" understands the details, and listens as well as delegates.
The system described has piloted first and second stages, because "manned systems are more reliable". I don't buy it.
Otherwise, the design seems prudent. The first stage uses LOX and liquid natural gas. Methane doesn't "coke", leave carbon deposits the way RP-1 does, and a reusable engine can't tolerate carbon buildup. The second stage is LOX and liquid hydrogen. The plan is cheap lift with the first stage to orbital altitude, then second stage to orbit. The second stage is cargo in the middle. The reentry heat shield is discussed a lot, and a new solution is found, but that is plausible if starting from scratch. The first stage returns and lands on its control rockets, the second stage returns on a parawing and lands on wheels.
Many alternatives are discussed and discarded. Single stage to orbit has too small a payload fraction. Space planes are an unwarranted extrapolation from jet aircraft - while passenger jets cycle quickly, they aren't intended to go Mach 35. The fastest continuous thrust plane ever built, the SR-71, was intended to go Mach 4 but only reached Mach 3.2 . Aerodynamic heating is proportional to V3 - going 10 times faster means 1000 times the heating, heat loads no material can stand.
Much discussion of tankage and structure and thermal cycling.
Anyone wanting to understand how rockets work and how to do better than government projects would do well to read this book. There's a lot of unjustified fantasy in the alternate space community - this book describes a plausible path forward.