|X-15 with heat shield and tanks|
You could say what goes around comes around. Actually with technology, projects are inspired by previous projects regardless of what country or political affiliation that project was from. Inspired by the X-15 project, Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites created a suborbital space plane system. The system was made up of a mother ship called the WhiteKnight and a space plane called SpaceShipOne. The WhiteKnight carried SpaceShipOne to about 50,000 feet and dropped her. The rocket would be ignited and SpaceShipOne would head off straight up to space. It would spend about five minutes in weightlessness and glide back home to the same runway it took off from. This was an all commercial venture, no government money was involved. In 2004 SpaceShipOne made history by making three trips to space. The last two were the flights that won the Ansari X-Prize. The adventure of making such crafts and flying them were captured on a video documentary titled Black Sky. The feat that SpaceShipOne accomplished was to take the equivalent of 3 bodies to space (over 100 km) and then do it again within two weeks time. I don't think any space ship of any kind had done that before. It demonstrated the ability to fully reuse the space craft.
The US Air Force did not take the retiring of the Space Shuttle laying down. It took up a project that was having its ups and downs. From that project, the Air Force gained an asset in the form of an unmanned space plane called the X-37. In fact there are two of these space planes. It's a utility space craft much like a truck is, you can use it for whatever. It has a bay like the shuttle but is quite small. It launches on top of an Atlas V rocket and glides down to a runway landing. It can stay in space for a very long time. Who knows what the US Air Force will do with it? Anyway, it's quite remarkable in its own right. Today, it's the only space plane in operation.
|SpaceShipTwo and WhitKnightTwo|
Now for the distant future. Will there be a time when we can fly form a runway all the way to orbit in just a single reusable craft like sci-fi movies depict? There is a British effort that is heading in that direction. The space plan is called Skylon. The big thing about this system is its engines. They are air breathing rocket engines. That means the craft doesn't carry so much oxygen in liquid form which leaves room for cargo or crew. Quite amazing. I think I'll have some crumpets and tea for my in flight meal to orbit, please.
Well, there you have it. It's not an exhaustive list of past, present, and future space planes, but it gives you a good view. We love the idea of flying to space on wings. Perhaps we will do it soon. In the mean time we can still dream.