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Space Planes: The Past, Present, and Future

Written by Dave Page

Long before the Wright brothers first achieved powered flight, humanity had developed an obsession with space. Literary examples of this go back as far as 1638, when Francis Godwin published his book “The Man in the Moon” which tells the story of a Spanish explorer who travels to the moon in a spaceship powered by geese. Yep.

This story captivated 17th century readers and paved the way for the untold numbers of space exploration stories that would follow. When the Wright brothers first took to the skies in 1903, people started to believe that space exploration would one day transcend the fictional world and become a reality. From that day forth, humans would continue to improve upon the original aeroplane designs and, in so doing, they would bring the idea of travelling into space closer and closer to reality. Today we will follow the progress of that idea as we look at the past, present and future of the space plane.

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Original Concept

Arguably the first person to propose the idea of a space plane was Friedrich Zander, a Baltic German pioneer of rocket design working for the Soviet Union.

In 1911, Zander published designs for A spacecraft partially built from combustible alloys. The spacecraft would be able to take off like a conventional aircraft and would then burn its wings as fuel to escape the upper atmosphere when they were no longer needed. Unfortunately, this design was never followed up, and, in spite of many proposed designs, it would be another 70 years before the first space plane was launched.

The Space Shuttles

With the 1960s heralding the beginning of space exploration, it soon became apparent that the use of single use spacecraft would no longer be viable and in 1972, three years after humans first walked on the surface of the moon, the idea of a reusable space shuttle was presented to the public for the first time. Billed as a “Space Truck” which would, among other things, be used to build a United States space station, the project immediately received huge amounts of interest and excitement from the public. However, in reality, it was a little more complicated than that. Not only would this vehicle need to be able to escape earth’s atmosphere, but it would also need to be capable of manoeuvring whilst travelling through the vacuum of space, it would need to be able to return safely to earth and (as if that wasn’t enough) it would also need to be capable of repeating this journey many, many times.
 
Launching on the 12th of April 1981, the Columbia Space Shuttle was just such a craft. Equipped with two reusable solid fuel engines and an external disposable fuel tank, the Colombia was capable of making the journey into space while carrying up to 8 astronauts and 50,000lbs (or 22,680 kg) of cargo. Once there, astronauts could utilise a number of smaller boosters which would allow it to manoeuvre, and specially designed wings would allow it to re-enter the atmosphere and return to the ground much like a conventional glider. Furthermore, it had been designed to be able to repeat this journey up to 100 times.
In time, Columbia would be joined by Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Together, these vehicles would make up the worlds very first, and so far only, fleet of space planes.

Troubles and Retirement

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On July 21, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis would land for the final time marking the end of this incredible 30-year-long project. At a total cost of $211 billion, America’s Fleet of space planes had, during its 135 missions, assisted in completing work on the international space station, carried out repairs on the damaged Hubble telescope and played host to countless scientific experiments designed to improve mankind’s understanding of the effects of weightlessness on everything from the human body to insects and plant life.  Unfortunately, the shuttle program had not been without incident.

On the 28th of January 1986, the space shuttle challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its 10th official flight, killing all seven people on board. According to reports, the cause of this accident was eventually determined to be ‘The failure of the two redundant ring seals in a joint in the Space Shuttle’s right solid rocket booster.

Disaster would strike again on the 1st of February 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry.  It is believed that during take-off, Colombia’s wing was struck by some falling debris, which compromised the structural integrity of some of the heat shielding designed to prevent the craft from burning up when returning into Earth’s atmosphere.

The Soviet BURAN

On the 15th of November 1988, the Soviet Union launched its first, and only, space plane, The Buran. Although the Buran was officially designed for transporting spacecraft, cosmonauts and supplies into orbit, in reality the Soviet Union were concerned about the possible military uses of the American space shuttle and the Buran was designed to counter that threat.

Similar in appearance to the American space shuttle, the BURAN was first carried into the upper atmosphere by another vehicle before launching into orbit with the use of smaller rocket boosters much like the modern-day Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two. Just like the shuttle the Buran was also capable of re-entering earth’s atmosphere and landing like a conventional aeroplane.

Although undergoing extensive testing within the atmosphere, the only orbital mission was undertaken with no crew members aboard and the project would be abandoned on the 30th of June 1993 in part because it was believed that its military capabilities were no longer necessary.

In an interview with former Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov had this to say about the termination of the program:
“We had no civilian tasks for Buran and the military ones were no longer needed. It was originally designed as a military system for weapon delivery, maybe even nuclear weapons.”. Unfortunately, the plans for the Buran project remain classified and it is highly unlikely that they will be made available in the foreseeable future.

With the cancelling of the Buran project and the permanent grounding of the remaining shuttles, the world would once again begin the search for the next generation of space plane.

Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two

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The brainchild of Virgin’s founder Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two utilises many of the same principles as the Buran in that it is carried into high orbit by another aircraft before utilising booster rockets to carry it into suborbit. However, unlike the Buran, Spaceship Two was designed neither for military use nor scientific advancement. It was designed for tourism. Virgin Galactic writes on their website that “We are the world’s first commercial spaceline, and our purpose is to connect people across the globe to the love, wonder and awe created by space travel.”

Once Reaching suborbit, Passengers will experience a brief period of weightlessness before re-entering the atmosphere and making a runway landing much like any traditional aeroplane. The whole experience, from take-off to landing lasts about 2 and a half hours and costs nearly half a million dollars.

On the 11th of July 2021, Richard Branson himself participated in the first of these flights and it is now possible for anybody with the available funds to book a seat on future journeys.
However, quick jaunts into space are not the only goal for Virgin Galactic. The company has plans to develop an aircraft that will be able to achieve sub orbit under its own power, once there, it will be able to take advantage of the lack of air friction and travel at several thousand miles an hour before re-entering the atmosphere and landing at different points around the globe. If Virgin Galactic are able to achieve this, it would mean that the new aircraft would be able to travel from London to New York in less than one hour and from London to Sydney Australia in less than three hours. Although this is very much still in the hypothetical stages, it may soon be possible to travel halfway around the world for a business meeting and return the same day.

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CST-100 Starliner

Designed and built as part of NASAs commercial crew program, the star liner’s main purpose will be to transport crew and cargo to and from the international space station. This reusable capsule has been designed to be compatible with several existing launch systems such as the Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon 9 rockets. Once completed, it will be capable of docking with the space station for up to 7 months before making the return journey to earth

Unfortunately, Boeing’s project has been beset with problems. Although some successful tests have been carried out, a scheduled unmanned mission to the space station that was supposed to take place on the 3 August 2021 was cancelled just hours before launch because of problems with propulsion system valves. Boeing has since rescheduled the launch for an undisclosed date in 2022.

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Radian One

On January 19, 2022, Washington-based start-up Radian Aerospace announced that it had secured $27.5 million to begin development of the ‘Radian One’. If successful, this craft will be able to take off from a standard runway and proceed under its own power into orbit without the use of primary stage rocket engines. To save fuel on take-off, Raidian 1 will be attached to a jet-propelled sledge which will carry the aircraft along a runway until it reaches take-off speed. At this point, it will detach and allow the aircraft to take off in the conventional manner, the aircraft will be capable of flying into low earth orbit and remaining there for up to 5 days before returning to earth and landing on a runway.

Radian Aerospace claim that they will be able to have the aircraft serviced and ready to fly again within 48 hours of landing. This incredible turnaround speed coupled with the fact that Radian 1 will be able to remain in orbit for such a long time, means that it could truly be a game changer for both scientific observations and the transportation of cargo such as satellites into orbit.

According to Doug Greenlaw, a Radian investor and advisor,

“Radian is doing what’s known as the ‘holy grail’ of accessing space with full reusability and responsiveness to provide customers unmatched cost effectiveness and flexibility,”
Unlike some other proposals, this project is already underway. At the time of writing, Radian Aerospace have developed and built a suitable engine for their space plane and a spokesperson has said that “the goal is to have the vehicle operational well before 2030.”

So, with all this technological advancement, how far are we away from being able to pop down to the local canteen and charter a spacecraft to another planet? In truth, very, very far. Although mankind has made some spectacular advances in the last 30 years or so, the ability to travel to other planets still eludes us. However, with Elon Musk’s plans to build a habitable station on Mars within the next 20 years, it is just possible that within our lifetimes a holiday to a self-contained city on Mars could be as viable a possibility for the average person as a standard plane journey to another country is now.

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