Follow TV Tropes


Space Plane

Go To

In essence, a spaceship that can take off and land like an aircraft, as well as also looking like an aircraft. Many ships have Vertical Take Off Or Landing (VTOL) 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. Both of these are obviated by the Sci Fi favourite propulsions of fusion torches, antimatter annihilators, reactionless drives and what have you.

Please note that this list only include SSTO (Single Stage to Orbit) or to sub-orbit to qualify.note  Nobody's built one, as of 2023. The most promising design so far is the Skylon, a British-designed European project, which recently cleared a key hurdle in engine development. Therefore, the following are not space planes by the definition used here:

  • The Space Shuttle, which required two boosters, a launch pad and a huge fuel tank to get into orbit. It was also incapable of any real powered flight, having to glide back to Earth. It pretty much defined 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, and had the same aerodynamic issues as the Space Shuttle. note 
  • Craft such as X-15 and SpaceShipOne that require another aircraft to get them to a launching height, and which only reach sub-orbital trajectory.
  • The X-37, which is launched by an Atlas V rocket. 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 Orbital Sciences Pegasus, thus far the only Air-Launch-To-Orbit (ALTO) launch system to reach commercial operation, is an expendable launch-vehicle with wings launched from the underbelly of a modified B-52 bomber.
  • MiG-105 (Spiral Project): A Soviet project that was only built in prototype form and never flew in space. Even if it had, it still wouldn't have qualified, since it was to be launched from the back of a never-built hypersonic jet.

In some settings, the definition "must be able to take off, fly into orbit, and land again" may not entirely apply; the ship in question may be used in both atmosphere and space, but it might be unclear whether they can fly from ground to orbit. This definition wouldn't work at all in settings with multiple habitable worlds, as that distance changes. Space Planes may be launched by The Battlestar, 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. However, as previously stated, they may be able to use their thrusters in VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) style.

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


    open/close all folders 

    Anime and 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 with relative ease, 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.
  • In Moonlight Mile, there is a single-stage to orbit spaceplane secretly developed by the US military called the X-68 Nightmare, which is used for transport to their clandestine space station from Area 51.
  • 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.
  • The Sailor Moon manga features one in its version of the "Lover of Princess Kaguya" story. Said plane seems identical to the Space Shuttle (through the size is unclear) but is far more capable, being able to take off with five people, the supplies to reach the Moon and back, the tools necessary for their specific mission, and a large nuclear weapon (though this one was expected to be used shortly after reaching orbit) with no external booster, only a ramp to better reach vertical position.

    Comic Books 
  • In The Man of Steel #1, Superman made his first public debut by saving an "experimental space-plane".
  • Wonder Woman:
    • Wonder Woman: Diana's invisible "robot plane" (called the invisible plane or invisible jet by later writers) was originally a space worthy craft which she used to visit other planets in the solar system.
    • In the later Golden Age comics the Amazons of Paradise Island had a small space worthy fleet which took off like airplanes and looked like airplanes which somewhat resembled swans.

  • The Colonial Marines' dropships in Aliens.
  • Most Star Wars space-capable vehicles smaller than about 200 meters are able to land on planets, but this is due to repulsorlift engines rather than conventional aircraft design. The shape of Naboo space fighters and space yachts, however, appear very similar to jet aircraft.
  • In Starship Troopers, dropships pick up the title characters. It's not clear how they get from surface to space, but they do look and act like a Space Plane.
  • One of the purest examples of this trope is the "Orion III" Space Plane model, which appeared briefly in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • The Valkyrie shuttles from Avatar.
  • Justified in Lilo & Stitch where Jumba's spaceship is actually based on the very passenger jet he, Pleakley, Nani, and Stitch were going to steal and use it to rescue Lilo from Gantu, which was changed due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  • Commercial airliners are capable of interstellar flight in The Fifth Element.
  • The Ranger SSTO (Single-Stage-To-Orbit) shuttle of Interstellar. The heavier and larger Lander shuttle relies more on thrust alone than on aircraft-like characteristics.
  • Conquest of Space (1955). The Mars expedition lander is a giant winged spacecraft. For take-off however the wings are jettisoned and the rocket section tilted vertically for take-off. Problems arise on both landing (thanks to a crewman suffering from Space Madness grabbing the controls) and take-off (thanks to a quake knocking them off a vertical axis).
  • The eponymous Starlight One hypersonic sub-orbital passenger liner in the 1983 disaster Made-for-TV Movie of the same name, based on experimental NASA spaceplane technology. The "disaster" stuff happens when space debris damages its heat shielding and thruster controls, leaving it stranded in orbit.
  • Anything flown by Buster Crabb in Flash Gordon.

  • 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 under their own power, as the first usage of one in Strike Force shows, but sub-orbital is enough most of the time.
  • X-Wings and Y-Wings in X-Wing Series 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 1950s 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. After that there's Firefly 4, designed to launch as high as an intercontinental ballistic missile and rain down atomic bombs on another country before returning to base for another bomb load. Simon does not regard it as a Cool Plane and wishes he'd never designed it.
  • Animorphs: The Yeerks' Bug Fighters bring to mind a cockroach the size of a school bus, but can operate in both space and atmosphere (and even underwater). Visser Three's Blade Ship is even bigger but still manages atmospheric flight.
  • The Kite from The Last Hero may or may not count. It uses an external booster to initially achieve orbital velocity (though not to "take off" ... this being the Discworld, it accomplishes that by just falling off the edge), but after discarding the booster, subsequently lands on Discworld's moon and then takes off again before landing back on the Disc. The Kite is at least the second vessel to fall off the edge and then return to the Disc, but while the first definitely passed the "no booster" requirement, as a sailing ship it rather failed the "plane" part, and calling its return "landing" is an overgenerous use of the term.
  • Several in the Greg Mandel series by Peter F. Hamilton given that Event Horizon is investing heavily in the space industry as part of the post-Warming economic resurgence. This gives Event Horizon a monopoly on the disposal of radioactive waste for a time, and at the rollout of the first Clarke-model spaceplane their CEO dodges the question of how the factories for making the spaceplane have been built in marginal political constituencies in exchange for the government contract.

    Live Action TV 
  • Battlestar Galactica (2003)'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.")
    • Mk VII Vipers are shown being towed around an airbase 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.
    • The Puddle Jumper operates just fine in atmosphere, in space, or even underwater.
  • 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 later 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 — the city-in-space starships 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.) The original shuttle met the single-stage to orbit, rocketnote  rather than antigravity power, and aerodynamic shape requirements. (The original concept was even more aerodynamic, but the curved hull would have been too expensive to fabricate on the show's budget, resulting in the blockier, more "van-like" shape actually used in the series).
  • The Outer Limits (1995): In "Joyride", the space plane Daedalus XL-141 is launched in 2001. The first commercial spaceflight, it is funded by the billionaire Carlton Powers, the owner of Powers Industries. There are six passengers: Powers himself, the former NASA astronaut Colonel Theodore Harris, the cosmetics giant Lil Vaughn, the National Scope journalist Martin Reese and newlyweds Barbara and Ty Chafey, who won a contest. Commander Sullivan is the only crew member.

  • Journey into Space: In The Return from Mars, Jet, Lemmy, Doc and Mitch are brought back to Earth on a stratoplane, which is described as a cross between an airplane and a spaceship.

    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 the Aerotech game, rules exist for Old-School Dogfighting, or for more realistic acceleration-based, frictionless combat.
  • 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.
    • Played straight for the more technologically advanced factions, as Eldar Vampires and Tau Mantas serve both as heavy ground attack aircraft in atmosphere and bombers in space.
    • The Hell Blade fighters and Hell Talon fighter-bombers used by the Eyrine Cults of the forces of Chaos are diabolical, and sometimes daemonically possessed, aircraft that are equally capable of fulfilling their respective roles within a planet's atmosphere and 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 Orbiter. It can do an Earth to Moon and Earth to Mars journey easily.
    • 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.
  • The Arwings of the Star Fox series have been shown to operate both within the atmosphere of a planet as well as the vacuum of space. In Star Fox Adventures Fox's Arwing had VTOL capabilities.
  • 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 and SR2 can fly in atmosphere, the Kodiak Drop Shuttle and the Mantis 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, 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. If It Swims, It Flies also applies due to a bug, allowing the fighters to move about underwater with no real loss in performance bar suicidally poor visibility.
  • Kerbal Space Program lets you build and fly space planes — or lets you attempt it, at least. It is a fairly realistic use of the trope — the challenges of designing a space plane in the game will give you a good idea of why no-one's managed to build one in Real Life. You have to find the right balance of air-breathing and rocket engines (each of which will be massive dead weight while the other is operating), pack enough fuel for both, make sure the whole thing is aerodynamic and controllable, and then you might find it's too heavy to leave the runway, or too under-powered to reach the extreme speeds required to achieve orbit, or can't survive the heat of re-entry... It can be done, however, and can be very rewarding — both because of the challenge and for the same reasons as in real life: in the game's career mode, having a re-usable single-stage-to-orbit launcher can save you a lot of resources.
    • Since the game's 0.23 update this was made a bit easier with the RAPIER hybrid jet/rocket engine (a direct reference to Skylon's SABRE engine); however, subsequent updates made the game's aerodynamic model more detailed and re-entry heating more realistic, raising the difficulty again...
  • Starcraft: Every faction's air unit can be used in atmosphere or in space.
    • The sequel has a remarkable case in the Banshee, since it uses rotors to move. Apparently it "generates its atmosphere" while in space.
  • Possibly the most extreme example of all: In Judgment Rites, Trelane's spaceship is a Fokker DR-1 triplane like the Red Baron's. It fights the Enterprise during one mission, and may very easily defeat it.
  • Empire Earth has two in the Space Age: One launched from a land-based airport, the other from a space-based carrier, with slightly different stats. As Space Is an Ocean is in full effect here, they are the only units to be able to freely attack both land and air units (although regular planes are able of spaceflight... if ordered to land on an airport on a different planet).
  • Captain Skyhawk's jet is capable of space flight, and will dock with a space station between missions to refuel and reload its weapons. The final battle also takes place entirely in space.
  • Your spaceship in Rodina is a 100-metre long gunship that can fly in atmosphere as well as in space.

    Web Original 
  • YouTuber Everyday Astronaut provides a pretty thorough deconstruction of this trope. He points out that the reason space planes aren't practical in real life, compared to multi-stage rockets, is that they need extra fuel just to carry hardware that's useless in space (wings, landing gear, etc.). Whereas a multistage rocket only needs to carry enough fuel for the actual payload, even if you make each stage reusable, the way SpaceX does.

    Western Animation 
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • No real spacecraft meeting the description of this trope has ever been built, and with the possible exception of the Skylon (see below), most attempts at building them have been cancelled. SSTO spaceplanes were something of a trend among designers in the late 1980s and 1990s, but most current spacecraft designers (SpaceX and Blue Origin, for example) favor multi-stage rockets and capsules.
    • The Silbervogel design from Nazi Germany was the first real attempt at a space plane. However, it's debatable how much it counts, since it didn't launch under its own power, instead relying on a rocket-powered sled as a booster.
    • 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. 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 rocket 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, which was only meant for sub-orbital tourist flights. A functional prototype was built, but was cancelled before being flown.
    • 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.