The Space Shuttle and the Soviet/Russian Buran have launched vertically, and their wings were exposed to the full load of aerodynamic forces during the launch. Stability may come from many factors, but the location of the wings near the bottom of the whole launch assembly certainly must have helped.

On the other hand, the X-37 was launched into space at the top of a long rocket where lift forces could have presented a big stability challenge, so it was launched protected from aerodynamic forces inside a fairing.

Are the US shuttle and Buran the only space planes to launch vertically to orbit with wings exposed?

below x3: X-37 with part of fairing, from here, Buran from here, and Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-79 from here.

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

This one doesn't count, as it didn't go into orbit, but it deserves an honorable mention. From the question ISRO's space plane on top of of a rocket - how unstable was it?, here are some photos of ISRO's RLV-TD.

In this case it is really a passive payload and does not participate in the launch. According to this answer:

From what I have read in journal papers related to RLV-TD so far control surfaces on winged body don't play any role during ascent phase.

ISRO's RLV-TD Space Plane launch ISRO's RLV-TD Space Plane launch

above left: From Ars Technica, photo credit: ISRO. right: From NewScientist, photo credit: ISRO.



2 Answers 2


Yes. Buran and the shuttle are the only ones which entered orbit, launched with wings exposed, and launched vertically.

Other such designs have also been serious considered. Boeing's X-20 got the closest to flying. It was cancelled shortly after assembly began. The MAKS was cancelled by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The MAKS program started the same year Buran flew, so I'm guessing they weren't satisfied with Buran. Incidentally, I would argue that Buran was also cancelled by the collapse of the Soviet Union and would otherwise have likely flown again.

Several horizontal air launch space planes have flown to suborbital trajectories. If you count Pegasus as a space plane it actually did achieve orbit but was not designed to survive reentry. Several scale models have launched vertically with wings exposed but only went into suborbital trajectories, though in some cases the apogees were high enough to make the reentry speed comparable to the shuttle.

  • $\begingroup$ @Schlusstein thanks for mentioning MAKS, that is interesting. I have a followup question! $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2017 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ Barring implausible secret military launches, I'm quite sure. $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2017 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ I just noticed that a half-day after asking this question, I asked the question ISRO's space plane on top of of a rocket - how unstable was it? This was launched by an attached rocket, not under it's own power. But then again that's partly true for both of these as well. Do you think you should add this to your answer? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 21, 2018 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ I recall a small spaceplane design that was meant to be launched as three nearly identical spaceplanes stacked together, two of them acting as boosters and returning to the launchpad, third reaching orbit. One special thing about it was that it was the only real-life spacecraft that used asparagus staging. IIRC it never flew, so again "doesn't count" but I guess it should earn a mention. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Jun 2, 2018 at 1:46

Buran, the Russian attempt at a Space Shuttle of course also launched the same way. But it was only a single launch ever.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I misread an article and thought it had not gone to orbit, I've edited my question to include it. I'm looking for something besides the Space Shuttle and Buran. Thanks for pointing it out! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 20, 2017 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ The Buran was unmanned but it orbited twice. It was the prototype Enterprise that never flew. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Nov 9, 2019 at 2:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.