The space shuttle looked like space ships in Star Trek and a lot of other science fiction movies/TV. Did people's expectation of what a space vehicle should look like, based on futuristic movies/tv shows, negatively influence the design of the shuttle when a reusable rocket like Falcon Heavy or some other design would have been more cost efficient?

  • 37
    $\begingroup$ I would contest the idea that the space shuttle looked much like space ships in science fiction at all. Of course, the space shuttle heavily influenced some science fiction for roughly 30 years (notably, Mobile Suit Gundam anime from the time period of the shuttle's operation really seemed to like it.) $\endgroup$
    – ikrase
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 5:12
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ someone was gonna contest it eventually $\endgroup$
    – Lightsout
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 6:22
  • 22
    $\begingroup$ Can you add specific examples of Sci-Fi that you have in mind. I don't recall many "typical" sci-fi spaceships looking anything similar to the shuttle. $\endgroup$
    – Polygnome
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 9:29
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Should be noted that only the first stages of the SpaceX rockets are reusable. Second stages burn up on reentry, as would anything that's not designed with proper heat shielding. So if you want to return stuff/people from orbit, you need either a capsule, like SpaceX's Dragon, or an aerodynamic vehicle like the Shuttle or X37, which can land at any suitable runway. Designing a capsule to return large payloads, as the Shuttle did, seems problematic. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 15:59
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ "i havn't seen rockets used much in scifi" the mind boggles. I guess it's an age thing. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 3:51

4 Answers 4


Did people's expectation of what a space vehicle should look like based on futuristic movies/tv shows negatively influence the design of the shuttle


The design of the space shuttle concept went through many, many revisions before reaching the form that got constructed. Many options were considered, and they were selected or rejected for technical reasons, not for aesthetic ones. You can read about the process in The Space Shuttle Decision.

a reusable rocket like Falcon Heavy or some other design would have been more cost efficient?

The shuttle didn't even look very much like science fiction. I'd argue that Falcon Heavy looks much more like sci-fi than shuttle did.

Shuttle's relatively poor cost-efficiency (much exaggerated, actually) was due to the combination of very ambitious specifications and a lack of funding for development. Many of the shuttle concepts involved a fully reusable first-stage flyback booster, which could have reduced the per-flight costs, but would have required much more money for initial development. The main engine specifications were at the very edge of what was possible in that era, leading to an engine that was expensive to build and maintain. Congress demanded that shuttle be the only launch system for all US government applications, and in turn the Air Force set unreasonable requirements on its capabilities, making for a much more expensive launcher.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ If you want an example of a spacecraft clearly influenced by sci-fi, the Starship/Starhopper line of rockets are pretty much spot-on. Some versions of that look almost cartoonishly sci-fi, like straight out of the Jetsons. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 16:20
  • 18
    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman The stereotypical sci-fi rocket shape comes directly from Von Braun's V-2 design, which is what it is for technical and aerodynamic reasons. On real rockets, the big fins went away with the advent of gimbaled rocket engines in the late '50s; the rear boat-tail taper went away because it improved stability. Starship got fins back for maneuverability and attitude control during reentry and descent. It's influenced by physics, not by fiction. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 16:41
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ That last paragraph is a really superb summation. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 16:47
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Vikki-formerlySean With a boattail, small deviations from 0 angle-of-attack don't put any additional cross-section "into the wind" at the aft end. Without boattailing, but retaining some amount of tapered forward profile, the aft section produces more correcting torque than the forward section does diverging. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 19:26
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ The sensing and compute problem is nearly unchanged in atmosphere. Doing it in 1g is a little harder than 1/6g. And, as I never get tired of screaming to an uncaring sky, NASA did it twenty years before SpaceX did. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 23:41

The dream of a space shuttle that would be reusable and could land like a plane had been around the space community since the 50's at least. You could argue that it was a mistake to follow that dream, and that NASA would have been better off continuing to use expendable rockets. So a case can be made that a wrong direction was taken. And it's true that science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke helped keep the public aware of that dream. But the thing is, it wasn't their idea.

50's painting of winged spacecraft

This painting is not from a science fiction magazine. It led off a series of articles in the magazine Collier's about the future of spaceflight, and the ideas in the article were from people like Wernher von Braun. So it may have been a mistake to follow the dream of a winged shuttle like we saw in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the people who followed that dream were basically the ones who hatched it, and their intellectual descendants. They weren't following SF.


No. "Sci-fi" is often the forerunner of reality by inspiring innovation. Just look at the Star Trek communicators, Tricorders, and talking computers (working!).

The Space Shuttle design (50 years ago!) actually made a lot of sense, with the massive solid boosters making up for the weight penalty of carrying wings and landing gear into orbit.

The real failure of the Shuttle was its lack of ability to carry a third stage of any significant size, limiting the scope of its application options.

1970 was as far away from today as it was from 1920, and precious few people comprehended how much of an orbital flight in terms of height and speed occurred above the atmosphere. This is the realm of rockets.

A shuttle craft provides an interface between orbital an atmospheric flight only to recover that stage and anything returning from space. Most flights at that time were one way trips up, with the rocket being thrown away.

With today's technology, including advances in automation and GPS, we can recover boosters, giving the Shuttle concept new life for a much wider range of applications (other than returning astronauts or broken satellites).

But to do this we must get away from the science fiction inspired picture of a winged craft soaring through the heavens on the back of a rocket (Estes Orbital Transport for one).

Glider pilots know kinetic energy (from velocity) and altitude are your friends, and from orbit, after re-entry, you have plenty. The glider can be ugly, and not even good at gliding. To train Shuttle pilots, aircraft were flown with their engines in reverse.

All that is needed is an adapter for the third stage, so it can be pushed into orbit in much the same manner as a tug pushing a barge on the Mississippi river. Here in this article we can see Arthur Rudolph holding a model of the Saturn V. Fast forward 50 years and we have a fly-back booster on the right. The second stage is a lifting body, the third may not be changed much at all (or could be anything else that weighs 100 tons). Giant wings on the 2nd stage shuttle are not necessary when landing at 200+ knots.

the empty weight of the Saturn 2nd stage, at 88,000 lbs, is about one half that of the Concorde airliner.

The European Space Agency developed a "wingless" shuttle and flew it around 5 years ago. Lacking the cross-range gliding requirement of the Space Shuttle, it would be a candidate for application as a recoverable air to orbit shuttle, or RATOS, designed as a second stage to recoverable boosters now being commonly flown.



The requirement that the space shuttle have a pilot sitting up-front, looking out through a windscreen, and "controlling" the craft during takeoff and landing, negatively influenced the design. Alternative designs either fully automated, or with astronauts carried as passengers in the belly of the craft, were rejected for reasons that were predominantly related to gaining political and public support for the space shuttle program.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Space! During the 1970s when the Shuttle was designed, the idea of autonomously landing an aircraft was the fiction, and having a human pilot visually landing a plane was the reality. So I think you have it backwards. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 13:24
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ This answer would benefit enormously from citing sources for its claims. $\endgroup$
    – zovits
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 15:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Pilot (or commander) didn't '"control during takeoff" $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 3:55

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.