space plane


A space plane is a rocket plane that is able to operate effectively both in the atmosphere and for extended periods at the edge of space, up to and including Earth orbit. Space planes combine features of aircraft, including wings and the ability to take off and land on runways, with those of spacecraft; they effectively represent a completely reusable form of spacecraft for near-Earth use.


Past and present designs include Dyna-Soar, HOTOL, Skylon, and, most recently and successfully, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne. Lifting bodies are used in prototype experimental tests of space plane concepts. Neither the Space Shuttle nor the Soviet Buran are true spaceplanes in the that they depend on conventional rocket boosters to get them into orbit. SpaceShipOne, like the earlier X-15 rocket plane, uses a carrier plane to lift it to high altitude at which its rocket engines is fired, although in this case the entire vehicle is reusable.


Future orbital spaceplanes may take off, ascend, descend, and land like conventional aircraft, providing true single-stage-to-orbit capability. Proponents of scramjet technology often cite such a vehicle as being a possible application of this type of engine.


Individuals involved in space plane design have included Alan Bond, Krafft Ehricke, and Eugene Sänger. See also air-breathing engine, HOPE, and Hermes.