Due to atmospheric drag, the lowest altitude at which an object in a circular orbit can complete at least one full revolution without propulsion is approximately 150 kilometres (93 mi).
Orbital spaceflight from Earth has only been achieved by launch vehicles that use rocket engines for propulsion. To reach orbit, the rocket must impart to the payload a delta-v of about 9.3–10 km/s. This figure is mainly (~7.8 km/s) for horizontal acceleration needed to reach orbital speed, but allows for atmospheric drag (approximately 300 m/s with the ballistic coefficient of a 20 m long dense fueled vehicle), gravity losses (depending on burn time and details of the trajectory and launch vehicle), and gaining altitude.
The main proven technique involves launching nearly vertically for a few kilometers while performing a gravity turn, and then progressively flattening the trajectory out at an altitude of 170+ km and accelerating on a horizontal trajectory (with the rocket angled upwards to fight gravity and maintain altitude) for a 5-8 minute burn until orbital velocity is achieved. Currently, 2-4 stages are needed to achieve the required delta-v. Most launches are by expendable launch systems.
The Pegasus rocket for small satellites instead launches from an aircraft at an altitude of 12 km.
There have been many proposed methods for achieving orbital spaceflight that have the potential of being much more affordable than rockets. Some of these ideas such as the space elevator, and rotovator, require new materials much stronger than any currently known. Other proposed ideas include ground accelerators such as launch loops, rocket assisted aircraft/spaceplanes such as Reaction Engines Skylon, scramjet powered spaceplanes, and RBCC powered spaceplanes. Gun launch has been proposed for cargo.
From 2015 SpaceX have demonstrated significant progress in their more incremental approach to reducing the cost of orbital spaceflight. Their potential for cost reduction comes mainly from pioneering propulsive landing with their reusable rocket booster stage as well as their Dragon capsule, but also includes reuse of the other components such as the payload fairings and the use of 3D printing of a superalloy to construct more efficient rocket engines, such as their SuperDraco. The initial stages of these improvements could reduce the cost of an orbital launch by an order of magnitude.