Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A spaceplane is a rocket plane designed to pass the edge of space. It combines some of the features of an aircraft and some of a spacecraft. Typically, it takes the form of a spacecraft equipped with wings.
The orbital spaceplanes successfully flown to date, the United States Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran, have used their wings to provide aerobraking to return from orbit and to provide lift to allow them to land on a runway like conventional aircraft. Both these vehicles are still designed to ascend to orbit vertically under rocket power like conventional expendable launch vehicles.
Other spaceplane designs use the vehicle's wings to provide lift for the ascent to space as well, in addition to the rocket. As of June 21, 2004, the only such craft to reach space have been the X-15 and SpaceShipOne. Neither of these craft have been capable of entering orbit, and both only start independent flight after being lifted to high altitude by a carrier aircraft. NASA and Boeing are currently developing uncrewed orbital spaceplane technologies as a low-cost alternative to expendable launch vehicles for satellite launches (see X-34, X-37, X-40A)
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 that type of engine.
Various types of spaceplanes have been suggested since the early twentieth century. Notable early designs include Friedrich Zander's spaceplane equipped with wings made of combustible alloys that it would burn during its ascent, and Eugen Sänger's Silbervogel bomber design. Winged versions of the V2 rocket were considered during and after World War II, and when public interest in space exploration was high in the 1950s and 60s, winged rocket designs by Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley served to inspire science fiction artists and filmmakers. The X-20 Dyna-Soar was to have been the first orbital spaceplane, but was cancelled in favor of the Space Shuttle.
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