Rocketplanes at the Airport

Rocketplanes have been around far longer than many of us groundlings may realize. German rocket gliders were flying in the 1920s, and winged space-bombers have been on the drawing boards since the 1930s. Both rocketplanes and winged rockets were flown during World War II, and rocket-research aircraft flew from the late 1940s until the mid-1970s. Rocket-powered "lifting bodies" flew in the 1960s and 1970s, gathering much needed aeronautical data. All of these efforts led directly to the US Space Shuttle, which since 1981 has flown over 120 missions into low Earth orbit, each time landing on a runway as a real spaceplane. The latest working example of a real spaceplane is SpaceShipOne, which flew several suborbital missions in 2004 above the 100-km "magic altitude" of space. The idea of using a winged vehicle to gain access to space shows no signs of stalling out. The vehicles themselves have had their share of mishaps, to be sure, but the idea flies on.

The history of the development of the spaceplane is one that stretches back to the early years of the twentieth century, and is intimately tied to the history of the airplane itself. Visionaries had foreseen an inevitable evolution of the airplane into a vehicle capable of spaceflight since at least the 1930s. Rocket engineers, by contrast, were developing wingless missiles in their endeavor to reach space by purely ballistic means. We will address the fundamental reasons for this later on. Yet, those in favor of the spaceplane concept recognized, from the outset, that a rocket engine of some kind could be "married" to a winged airframe to create a long-range vehicle capable of space operations. This concept took several forms, reflecting the initial design approach. One avenue of attack was to incorporate a rocket engine into a highly streamlined airplane, as in the X-series of research aircraft, and see how high and fast you could go. Another approach was to vertically launch a ballistic vehicle that could glide back to Earth, a method first tried with the V-2 rocket and routinely used by the US Space Shuttle. Both approaches have yielded varying degrees of success, and the debate about which approach is best continues to this day. But to properly tell the saga of the spaceplane and its progenitor, the rocketplane, we have to start with the first powered airplane.

M.A. Bentley, Spaceplanes: From Airport to Spaceport, doi:10.1007/978-0-387-76510-5_1, © Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2009

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