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Space Plane

In essence, a spaceship that can take off and land like an aircraft, as well as looking like an aircraft. Many ships have Vertical Take Off Or Landing capabilities, these babies though can use a regular runway too.

Saves you the cost of a space launcher that you only use once. The obvious technical issue is that you need a store of liquid oxygen on board for the actual space bit of the journey- as you need something to burn the hydrogen with once the air gets too thin. Another issue is the ability to get to Mach 25, but that's not too hard.

Please note that this excludes:
  • The Space Shuttle, which requires two boosters, a launch pad and a huge fuel tank to get into orbit. It is also incapable of any real powered flight, having to glide back to Earth. It pretty much defines the term 'Flying Brick'.
  • Buran, the Soviet equivalent, which used a single powerful rocket to get into orbit, rather than relying on its own power.
  • Craft such as X-15 and SpaceShipOne that require another aircraft to get them to a launching height.
  • The X-37, which is launched by an Atlas V 501. It doesn't carry nearly enough fuel— fully loaded, it masses just under 5 metric tons. Compare with the Space Shuttle, which masses 2,000.

The spaceplane must be single-stage-to-orbit or sub-orbit to qualify. Nobody's built one, as of February 2013. The most promising design so far is the Reaction Engines Skylon, a British-designed European project, which recently cleared a key hurdle in engine development.

Though in some settings the definition "Must be able to takeoff, fly into orbit, and land again" may not entirely apply as the ship in question may be used in both atmosphere and space but it is unclear if they can fly from the ground to orbit. In settings with multiple habitable worlds this definition wouldn't work at all, as that distance changes. The Space plane may be launched by a Battle Star, descend into the upper atmosphere and come back up (or not) but may not be able to land on a terrestrial runway at all, many space fighters do lack wheels as a part of their landing gear.

Usually an example of the Cool Plane. See also: Space Fighter.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • The Gekko-Go of Eureka Seven is a large aircraft that is capable of entering low orbit for quick trans-globe travel.
  • The Macross franchise is the king of this trope, featuring space planes that are also Transforming Mecha — but, perhaps surprisingly, they end up spending more time in plane form than mecha form. The earlier models of variable fighters generally required a lift from another craft to reach space but by the time of Project Supernova they're capable of reaching orbit from planetary surfaces, even loaded down with an optional extra fold booster.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam, the FF-3/FF-S3 Sword Fish is a multi-use interceptor that functions in high altitude and low orbit. It's successor, the Transformable Humongous Mecha MSZ-006C4 Zeta plus C4 is a Humongous Mecha version of it, and its Super Prototype, the MSZ-006 Zeta Gundam is basically the real Space Plane version for both full range aerial and space combat, instead of only specializing in around the atmosphere.
    • The Principality of Zeon's Zanzibar-class space cruisers are basically enormous spaceplanes. It's debatable whether they count, though, as there is some source conflict on whether they require an external booster to reach orbit.
  • A prevalent part of the setting in Planetes: single-stage orbit-capable shuttles appear to run between Earth and the ISPV-space colonies, similar to modern airliners, of which one of the secondary characters is a pilot. The destruction of one of these in the back-story is the main reason the main cast is out collecting debris.

    Film 

    Literature 
  • The Duumvirate's fusion-powered jet can take them to Mars without a booster.
  • The Black Stallions from the novel of Dale Brown. They can go to orbit, as the first usage of one in Strike Force shows, but sub-orbital is enough most of the time.
  • X-Wings and Y-Wings don't typically count; they have repulsorlift coils and use them. But Starfighters of Adumar has a pilot recount the case of another pilot whose craft had been shot up so the repulsorlifts had stopped working, and who had instead approached the cleared landing zone on the local moonbase, dropping his skids as he got close. Wes can tell the story.
    Wes Janson: "The skids take the initial impact but he bounces, so he's like some sort of hop-and-grab insect all down the duracrete. But he's lucky enough that he stays top side up. Finally he's bled off a lot of momentum, but he loses control and his Y-Wing rolls. Comes to a stop on its belly and he's safe. Then his ejector seat malfunctions and shoots him off towards space. With grav that low, he achieves escape velocity. We had to send a rescue shuttle up after him or he'd still be sailing through the void, one cold cadaver."
  • The book Gradisil by Adam Roberts features jet planes being retrofitted to journey into Low Earth Orbit. By riding on electromagnetic fields the planes, over the course of a day or so, can reach orbit. Big planes like a 747 are used to lift private space-habitats into orbit.
  • The Polaris Clippers in Perigee take off horizontally, fly up to space, and use atmospheric bounces known as 'skips' to reach their destination. They make powered landings. They are not designed to fly as Single Stage To Orbit ships - hence the surprise and panic when the Austral Clipper manages to not be so sub-orbital as was intended. However, Penny Stratton stated that Polaris would never have done an SSTO with a standard Clipper intentionally - the Austral Clipper exhausts all its fuel reaching orbit because the engines wouldn't shut down.
  • The 1950's adventure series by Australian author Ivan Southall featuring Ace Pilot Simon Black and his supersonic aircraft Firefly. In Simon Black in Space the Firefly 3 is capable of flight outside the Earth's atmosphere.

    Live Action TV 
  • Battlestar Galactica's Colonial Vipers and Cylon Raiders could fly and fight both in an atmosphere and in a vacuum.
    • Both might fail on technicalities. If a "spaceplane" has to "take off and land like an airplane," well, how Vipers would land at a ground-based facility—or take off again, on those skids—is never established. And do Raiders even have landing gear? (This doesn't mean that appropriate facilities don't exist or couldn't be built; it's just that, if they were, we never saw 'em. Both types of craft always launched from and and returned to a starship, which is not "like an airplane.")
    • We do actually see Mk VII Vipers being towed around an airbase in the new Battlestar Galactica, in a flashback set just after the death of Zack Adama. That sequence, plus some close-ups in Galactica's hangar deck seem to indicate that the skids have some retractable(?) wheels which could be used for a conventional runway take-off and landing. The Raptor, however, would probably count as a single-stage VTOL spaceplane.
  • Stargate's Goa'uld gliders, human X-302s, and Wraith darts can fly in space and in atmosphere
  • Red Dwarf had several Starbugs and Blue Midgets. Starbug is explicitly stated to be a ship-to-surface craft, implying that it ferried ore from the surface of the planet or asteroid it was mining to the ship itself. Neither of those fly like planes, however.
  • The Doctor Who episode "Victory of the Daleks" has Dalek technology co-opted by Britain during World War II to produce Space Spitfires.
    • The "Doctor Who" episode "When a Good Man Goes to War" has the exact same Spitfires returning to help The Doctor take control of a space station called Demons Run.
  • One turns up, in of all places, CSI: Miami.
  • Space: Above and Beyond's Hammerhead fighters.
  • In the Star Trek universe, shuttlecrafts are able to go from the Cool Ship in orbit and land on the Planet of Hats, and make the trip back, with no outside help when it comes to propulsion. We don't see it often, but they are even warp-capable. The starships themselves tend to spend their entire operational lives in space, but at least the USS Voyager can land and take off again without any outside help, though it takes a lot of preparation to do that with the city-in-space starships that really aren't meant for that. (Voyager is sleeker and smaller by that standard; trying it with any version of the Enterprise never comes up.)

    Real Life 
(None of these have really got off the ground yet)
  • The Silbervogel design from Nazi Germany.
  • The British HOTOL (Horizontal Take Off Or Landing) project, cancelled in 1988 after development problems.
  • The Skylon project, successor to HOTOL, presently in development. Mostly a project of Reaction Engines Limited (the British company building it), although it has received a small grant from the European Space Agency. Seen in art above. It's currently both the most advanced and the most realistic SSTO project, and it looks like something straight out of Padme Amidala's garage.
  • X-30 "National Aerospace Plane", which was never built. A smaller version, the X-43, reached a maximum speed of nearly Mach 10 using a Pegasus missile as a booster. Keep in mind that to be a true Space Plane, an aircraft would need to reach somewhere around Mach 25, depending on what altitude you were at, without a booster.
  • The XCOR Lynx rocketplane. It will only be able to reach Mach 2 or 3, however, and will be limited to brief, sub-orbital spaceflight only.
  • There are several proposed designs which use a magnetic launch system to achieve the necessary launch velocity. Naturally none have been built due to cost; it could also be argued that any craft launched by such a system would not be a true space-plane, since it wouldn't be taking off under its own power.
  • The Hypersoar was a commercial airliner project that would fly to the edge of space and skip across the atmosphere, making it extremely fast and thrifty with fuel while avoiding the Concorde's noise problems. It was quickly shelved when it was realized the skipping effect couldn't be done effectively without repeated +1G/-1G shifts in acceleration.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In BattleTech, there are Aerospace fighters which can act as normal fighter aircraft or as a Space Fighter at the discretion of the mothership, at least some of which are capable of surface - to - space flight, winged shuttlecraft, and Aerodyne Dropships, which land via runway (Unlike the Spheroid Dropships, which land vertically). All surface-to-orbit craft use a hydrogen fusion reactor for power and nuclear fusion rockets for propulsion, which makes them immune to stalling.
  • In Warhammer 40,000, the Imperial Navy's aircraft - as in, fighters and bombers designed primarily to operate in an atmosphere - are technically spaceplanes, as they can be launched off an Imperial Navy starship in orbit and can reach that starship from ground airbases once the fighting's over. In something of a subversion, the Imperial Navy's starfighters - like the Fury - are altogether much larger than standard aircraft and have a crew of around three, and while they can operate in an atmosphere it's not recommended because they're not designed for it.
    • Though this is played straight where the more technologically advanced factions are concerned, as Eldar Vampires and Tau Mantas serve both as heavy ground attack aircraft in atmosphere and bombers in space.
  • Many small craft and even Starships in Traveller are capable of this. Not all, particularly the biggest which is why the largest starports tend to have orbital facilities.

    Video Games 
  • Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War had the Arkbird, though this is debatable. There is only one Arkbird, and its method of takeoff is unknown, it remains in orbit rather than ever returning to the ground. However, what it does do on a regular basis is dive into the atmosphere for a mid-air resupply, then pull back up to orbit, all under its own power. If any boosters were ever used, they were only to get it off the ground in the first place, everything else is done by its own engines.
  • The Delta-glider Mk.4 (and many other cool spaceplanes) from the Freeware space simulator Orbiter. It can do an Earth to Moon and Earth to Mars journey easily.
    • http://www.dougsorbiterpage.com - The XR series (XR1 is a just a more sophisticated Delta-glider)
      • The XR2 Ravenstar is probably one of the more awesome examples from Orbiter, as its basically a Space capable reimagining of the SR-71 Blackbird, and has the gloriously powerful engines to match.
      • The XR5 Vanguard is a spaceplane with a massive cargo bay that can carry a few dozen TEUs like a container ship, or several space station modules. It is capable of constructing a small space station in one launch.
  • Freelancer's space ships seem fully capable of launching and landing, though gameplay always uses docking rings, presumably for traffic control.
  • Battlecruiser 3000 AD's shuttles are capable of atmosphere to space and back.
  • Starting with Wing Commander III, some fighters are explicitly said to be capable of flying and fighting in an atmosphere, while others aren't.
  • Civilization: Call to Power has several units that can launch themselves into space. (Including an actual Space Plane unit, and a unit called a Space Fighter). The Civilization 2: Test of Time Sci-fi game also has several units that can travel into space. (The Shuttle is probably the most obvious example.)
  • Several ships in the Mass Effect universe - the Normandy SR1 can fly in atmosphere, the Kodiak Drop Shuttle and the Viper gunship can both transit too, as can starfighters. Though the mass effect fields they generate make this substantially easier than in real life by reducing their objective mass to almost nothing, allowing them to remain aloft on just a minimum of thrust and achieve orbit without expending enormous amounts of reaction mass.
  • In Final Fantasy VIII, you get one of those in place of a Global Airship. It's called Ragnarok.
  • Present in MechWarrior Living Legends, a total conversion mod for Crysis Wars,. Aerospace fighters use fusion rockets rather than conventional jets, and as such they work perfectly fine in the depths of space or above a hellish volcanic battlefield. And because a fusion engine doesn't need air intakes and moving air to work properly, the engine is impossible to stall. Aerospace fighters can spiral into absurd turns or go into wild rolls at a dozen rotations per second and come out fine so long as the pilot jams down on the throttle to regain lift from the wings.
  • You can try to build one in Kerbal Space Program, once you're tired of old-fashioned rockets. It's not easy by any means.
    • Made easier in the 0.23 update with the RAPIER hybrid jet/rocket engine (based on the Skylon's SABRE engine).

    Western Animation 
  • An American educational series involving robots visiting other planets. Help with the show name would be appreciated.
  • An inversion is the SWAT Kats' Turbokat, which is a jet that can go into space if necessary.
  • All E-frames from Exo Squad seem to have direct-atmosphere-to-space-and-back capability, but most of them fall under Humongous Mecha, so only Kaz Takagi's CR-001 Exofighter qualifies for the "plane" part.
  • The Disney show Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers had an episode, imaginatively called "Space Plane" which revolved around Chip and Dale getting trapped in a space plane, forcing Gadget to cook up a scheme involving a homemade spaceship with fire extinguisher thrusters, dynamite-powered rockets, all powered by pulling cables with nuts and washers attached to them.
  • The first episode of Ben 10: Ultimate Alien introduces the Rustbucket, a space plane that can travel across the galaxy with ease. It literally is a plane the Plumbers modified to be a spacecraft and is used by Ben's team to react to crises all over the globe and beyond. In an amusing scene Gwen notes that she has to wait until graduation to get her own car, yet she can pilot the Rustbucket hundreds of light-years just to meet an alien contact.
  • Justice League: The Javelin spacecraft used by the League are fully-functional VTOL aircraft, and can operate underwater as well.

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