The idea of single-use vehicles for transportation seems pretty ludicrous. We don't throw out bicycles after peddling down the street, or put our cars on the trash heap after a spin around town. 

But the fundamental physical challenges of getting off the surface of the Earth and into space have skewed the development of our propulsion systems and spacecraft towards the use-it-and-lose-it model. Of course NASA's Space Shuttle program was centered around the concept of a reusable 'spaceplane', and now SpaceX has made formidable demonstrations of reusability in its launch systems and supply vessels. And suborbital programs like those of Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin are centered around systems that are inherently reusable.

Curiously though, way back at the dawn of human space exploration there were vehicles that could already do some of this for you. Specifically, on August 22nd, 1963, the US Air Force and NASA X-15 project made what is considered to be the first proper suborbital re-flight of a spacecraft.

NASA's chief research pilot, Joseph A. Walker took the rocket-powered X-15 from a drop-off at 45,000 feet by a B-52 carrier craft all the way up to 354,200 feet, or just about 108 kilometers above Nevada. This particular craft had already made a suborbital sortie, also piloted by Walker, back on July 19th of that year - making it to 106 kilometers that time.

Burning the rocket at 100 percent for about 86 seconds, Walker hit a max speed of around Mach 5.58 at burnout, or 3,794 miles an hour. This was at around 178,000 feet, from which point the X-15 simply coasted ballistically up to its apogee altitude. Walker experienced somewhere between three and five minutes of weightlessness during this maneuver.

After a total flight time of some 12 minutes Walker neatly landed the X-15 back on terra firma at Edwards Air Force base in California. 

The X-15 program was a remarkable thing. All in all three craft attempted 199 flights. There were failures but there were also 13 flights that went over the 50 mile or 80 km boundary - sometimes considered to be where you qualify as an astronaut rather than a pilot. Despite that, Walker only received his astronaut wings some 40 years later, posthumously. 

Today the X-15 program tends to be remembered for its contributions to understanding hypersonic atmospheric flight, but it also represented a possible future for spaceflight that never quite materialized. Until, perhaps, now - as we enter an era of genuinely reusable launch vehicles and spacecraft.