The historical space plane designs that inspired the Shuttle

At the end of this week on July 8, the final mission of NASA's Space Shuttle program launches from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The program's thirty year history is familiar to space-watchers, but less is known of the program's pre-history. Before there was a Space Shuttle program, there was an initial twenty-five period filled with sci fi-like proto-spacecraft.

It turns out that our familiar Shuttle program is just one of many "space plane" projects that were sketched out over the years, both by the U.S. Air Force and by NASA. In this piece, we'll take a look the various shapes those space planes took, and the awesome artwork our space ambitions produced, too.

Back in the 1950s, the main objective was to develop a reusable technology for getting to space and back. Program designers wanted a craft that would be cheaper than rockets, and more efficient. One that could scoot around in orbit, dock with a space station, and return to Earth.

In order to be reusable, it would need to return to earth in a gentle, airplane-like landing. Therefore most designs featured something like wings, making it look something like a plane. This ad from 1961 advertises the hot gas steering system being developed by Bendix:

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Hot gas is the product of a controlled, pneumatic combustion that powers thrusters that steer and control the pitch, yaw and roll of the craft. Here the hot gas is shown as little jets of "flame" (really gas) popping out the tips of the wings like little spikes.

Engineers developed some shorthand lingo for talking about such possible craft. "Space plane" is the most common catchphrase. Space plane technology is referred to by acronyms: VTHL (vertical takeoff, horizontal landing), and RLV (reusable launch vehicle).

The idea was also referred to in another shorthand, too: space transport. Eventually when the Shuttle program was developed in the 1970s, it was officially named the "Space Transportion System," hence the mission names: "STS-135," which is what Atlantis's impending mission is called.

Back in 1960, ideas about what space transport might look like were wide-ranging. As with a lot of other new space technologies, artists drew freely from their imaginations to depict what things might look like before they were built. Here the boomerang-shaped "delta wing" design idea on the left, labeled "Space Transport," is described as being a spacecraft "capable of transporting, to an orbit of more than 1,000 miles, a pilot and 1,000 pounds of payload, or three passengers equipped to work in space..." This was Lockheed's proposed design for a possible Air Force space plane:

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The Mach 6-7 Air Transport pictured here with the Space Transport (bottom right, above) bears a suggestive similarity to a 1960 Chevy Corvair automobile.

The space plane idea was always planned to coordinate with a space station. Until engineers started working out the practicalities, it was widely assumed that a space station would look like a wheel.

Here in the artwork from another ad from Bendix, the space plane is shown at four different points in its trajectory between space station and Earth:

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And again, in artwork from a recruitment ad from the defunct aerospace corporation Marquardt:

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Some companies had more sophisticated artists creating fantasy-like images for recruitment advertisements. The artwork above, from 1963, is most likely by the space artist Ken Smith, who created other similar images for Marquardt that bear his signature.

For several years the Air Force's X-20 Dyna-Soar ("Dynamic Soarer") project was the most promising space plane in the works. This real program was on the drawing boards from the late 1950s until it was canceled in 1963. Every company that wanted a chance at designing the craft for the Air Force made their own unique design (such as the aforementioned delta wing design by Lockheed, above). But the most common style was like this, anticipating our familiar Space Shuttle:

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This particular design seems to have been planned as a robotic spacecraft, as it has no windows for astronauts to look out of. Different space plane designs went back and forth between being robotic spacecraft and being planned for astronaut control.

Before the familiar Shuttle program was finalized in the mid-1970s, NASA experimented with some widely varied designs of "wingless flight" craft. These projects, carried out during the mid-1960s to early '70s, were different from the early ideas of the space plane. Designed to glide based on the shape of their chubby, aerodynamic profiles, they were referred to as "lifting bodies" rather than "space planes." At a 1963 air show in San Mateo County, California, the Northrop-designed M2-F2 lifting body was promoted with this image on the back of the show program:

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Several lifting body designs were built and tested, including the M2-F2. Science fiction connection: the crash of the final flight of the M2-F2, caught on film, was used in the title sequence of The Six Million Dollar Man. NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center also has a Web page with a few movies of the M2-F2 test vehicles in action.

By the 1970s a combination of political and technological forces created the Space Shuttle program that formally began in 1981 and is wrapping up this week. While our working Shuttle program is drawing to a close, the proliferation of "space plane" projects throughout history is grounds for optimism that other similar projects will be up and running someday for exploration. Space plane technology is still alive and well. We're just going to be missing the opportunity for our astronauts and scientists to travel in one.

New space plane projects are already at work in the commercial and defense realms: SpaceShipOne is a spaceplane, and won the Ansari X Prize. The U.S. Department of Defense is currently operating a classified robotic space plane project, the X-37B. Bearing some design similarities to the Space Shuttle, in the context of history it really brings to mind the Dyna-Soar even more than the Space Shuttle:

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Now, in a fitting end that captures not where we've been, but where we're going: in this image from 1962, the astronaut at the wheel of a proto-space plane forgets its orbital boundaries and heads for the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy.

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(The pictures in this post were generously provided by Megan Prelinger and the Prelinger Library. Click on any of them to see each image larger, or explore them all at once in the gallery below.)




About Our Guest Blogger

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Megan Prelinger is a citizen historian of space and technology. She is author of the advertising-based history of the early space industry, Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-62. A lifelong collector of forgotten historical ephemera, she is co-founder of the Prelinger Library in San Francisco which is open to the public. She posts tidbits to Twitter @meganprelinger.

You can check out a video TIME magazine did on the Prelinger Library here.

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