Is There a Spaceplane Revolution in Our Future?


Artist's concept of the X-30 aerospace plane flying through Earth's atmosphere on its way to low-Earth orbit. the experimental concept is part of the National Aero-Space Plane Program. The X-30 is planned to demonstrate the technology for airbreathing space launch and hypersonic cruise vehicles.

Artist’s concept of the X-30 aerospace plane flying through Earth’s atmosphere on its way to low-Earth orbit. The experimental concept was part of the National Aero-Space Plane Program. The X-30 was planned to demonstrate the technology for airbreathing space launch and hypersonic cruise vehicles.

During the Reagan administration of the early 1980s, senior government officials began to discuss the possibility of developing an “Orient Express,” a hybrid air and spaceplane that could carry ordinary people between New York City and Tokyo in about one hour. How would this be possible?

Actually, the concept was quite simple. It would require developing an aerospace plane that could take off like a conventional jetliner from an ordinary runway. Flying supersonic it could then reach an altitude of about 45,000 feet, where the pilot would start scramjet engines, a more efficient, faster jet engine that had the potential to reach hypersonic speeds. This would take the vehicle to the edge of space for a flight to the opposite side of the globe, from whence the process would be reversed and the vehicle could land like a conventional airplane. It would never reach orbit, but it could fly in space and passengers would experience weightlessness. The experience would be similar to orbital flight, except for a much shorter time.

The spaceplane concept has long held enormous promise and perhaps could well become reality within the first half of the twenty-first century. Most important, commercial spaceplanes promise passengers an opportunity to travel around the globe with greater speed and ease than anything available today.

The cost of such flights would be high, without question. Some advocates believe that existing technology would allow the building of passenger spaceplanes and sell tickets for as little as $200,000 per seat. Does a market sufficiently robust exist to support this effort? Market studies suggest that at least 50,000 passengers a year would fly a spaceplane at the price noted here. That could be a multi-billion dollar business! It could grow in size and become less expensive as technology progressed.

The most attractive part of spaceplane travel at first would be its novelty. Like flying on the Concorde between Europe and New York City, it would not sustain itself solely as a practical means of transportation during the first half of this century. Instead, bragging rights for having flown at hypersonic speeds would initially sustain the effort. Floating about the cabin, passengers would be able to peer out of ports and see the blackness of space above them and the blue-green Earth below.

Don't Be Rescued from Outer Space: Interest in a winged reusable spaceplane persisted during the 1960s. This cartoon by Wen Painter, who then worked at NASA’s High Speed Flight Test Center in the Mojave Desert of California captured the essential difference between space capsule “splashdowns” at sea and more elegant runway landings by a spaceplane.

Don’t Be Rescued from Outer Space: Interest in a winged reusable spaceplane persisted during the 1960s. This cartoon by Wen Painter, who then worked at NASA’s High Speed Flight Test Center in the Mojave Desert of California captured the essential difference between space capsule “splashdowns” at sea and more elegant runway landings by a spaceplane.

Passenger service of this sort could offer an exceptional promise for financing space ventures. No longer dependent on government financing, space entrepreneurs might be able to raise funds for human space flight through the private sector. This would be a critical step in opening the space frontier to ordinary (albeit wealthy) people, thus helping to realize the promise that (almost) anyone can fly. Is this on the verge of becoming reality?

For many years I thought so. The development of the X-33/VentureStar through a NASA/Lockheed Martin partnership jazzed me in the latter part of the 1990s. But it ran into the twin problems of technology overstretch and funding constraints.

Through the efforts currently underway might we see a new spaceplane in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps the private sector efforts of SpaceX, Orbital/ATK, Blue Origin, and others will further this challenge. The successes thus far in this direction are positive signs, but I urge caution in trumpeting any current efforts as THE answer to this issue. Although the trajectory is positive, these firms still have a tough road to hoe before achieving an operational system. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force’s recent success with a modified X-37B reusable orbital vehicle suggests that innovation for non-crewed military purposes may also be applicable to spaceplane research and development.

An artist's conception of the X-37B in orbit. Will this military spaceplane become the precursor of a piloted military Earth-orbital vehicle?

An artist’s conception of the X-37B in orbit. Will this military spaceplane become the precursor of a new “Orient Express?”

Interestingly, beyond technology R&D at NASA—which of course may be critical to the next flight systems—the space agency may well have to look beyond its personnel and its various centers for the answer. This is not unprecedented, but it is troubling after more than fifty years of being able to harness its own capabilities to resolve these technological challenges.

To answer the question posed in the title, perhaps but there is no certainty.

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4 Responses to Is There a Spaceplane Revolution in Our Future?

  1. chrisbpetty says:

    Interesting thoughts. Like Nuclear Fusion, the HTHL hypersonic space always seems just on the horizon, but never seems to get closer.

    From the USAF’s Aerospaceplane in the early 60s through to current efforts like Reaction Engines’ SKYLON, these projects seem to appear in response to a new enabling technology that will allow such a vehicle to become a reality (Scramjets, ACES, new lightweight materials, computational fluid dynamics, the SABRE pre cooler tech etc.) but tend to evaporate when the magnitude of issues relating to the realities air breathing hypersonic flight regime are examined more closely.

    Possibly the huge spike of interest in hypersonic systems by various militaries at the moment will lead to the breakthroughs required, but this will doubtless be a colossally expensive venture for whoever chooses to take it on. It’s notable that the majority of proposed hypersonic spaceplanes have looked to an orbital capability to allow them to deliver military or commercial payloads to LEO, thus provide an additional revenue stream to help amortise the enormous development costs – it’s hard to imagine a commercial point-to-point passenger service alone generating the revenue required.

    FWIW here’s a post I wrote about the X-30/NASP examining it’s origins and development: https://thehighfrontier.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/reagans-impossible-dream-the-x-30-national-aerospace-plane/

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  2. Michael Wright says:

    It seems to me X30, X33, and other SSTO concepts all doomed to fail unless some way to find exception to Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation (yeah, lots of luck with that). There are some hypersonics being researched but I think main motivator are high speed missiles rather than transport systems. Getting back to Concorde, SSTs cannot scale up like subsonic air travel. The mainstay air transport basically has not changed in shape and speed from the Boeing 707 (or Dash 80). They’ve become much more reliable and fly greater distances. We debate more about dealing with airport security screening and no more in flight meal services (though they still serve meals for 1st class seats). We did ban smoking on board which is very nice.

    Regarding space planes, I believe there never will be another like the Shuttle. There is X37 but it’s so secret for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist. There may be a private winged space vehicle, Dream Chaser but its development seems very slow as compared to SpaceX Dragon that’s progressed much further than other vehicles in development. Big question can that lifting body design be scaled up to Shuttle size. Is it possible to have a economically scaled space plane (big in size, lots of routine flights)?

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  3. Joao says:

    I am not sure if you’d regard the source as kosher, but SF writer Charlie Stross posted a thoughtful discussion of the practicalities of sub-orbital commercial flight in the near future in his blog not too long ago. http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2015/01/why-were-not-going-to-see-sub-.html

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