What is the difference between a space plane and a space shuttle? It seems that they both look similar and also have a similar purpose. But what is the true difference?

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    $\begingroup$ In your question body, you ask about "A space shuttle" (indefinite article and lower-case) but you tagged your question with space-shuttle, which refers to "THE Space Shuttle" (definite article and Proper Noun). Which of the two are you asking about? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 21:53

4 Answers 4


A plane, or airplane, aeroplane, is:

An airplane or aeroplane (informally plane) is a fixed-wing aircraft that is propelled forward by thrust from a jet engine, propeller, or rocket engine.

All space shuttles ever built are ballistic projectiles on the way up and gliders on the way home, neither of which fits the definition of a plane: going up there is thrust but no aerodynamic lift, while coming back there is aerodynamic lift but no thrust.

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    $\begingroup$ @BradV it's kind of silly to say that shuttles didn't glide. Bad L/D yes, but please. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ OK... a gliding brick. $\endgroup$
    – BradV
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ A space shuttle IS gliding, but at a significantly higher speed than a typical glider would. The starting velocity of a space shuttle exceeds terminal velocity and the first part of the "glide" is to use the atmosphere as a speed brake. $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ @SirHawrk for anyone who hasn't seen that: please go watch it! It's based on this answer in Aviation SE. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ @SirHawrk Not unless Bret Copeland knows how to land a time machine, as well as a Space Shuttle: "I gave a talk ... in October 2016", but "answered Dec 24, 2015 at 1:13". From the YouTube notes, it seems more like both answer and video were based on being "more than a little obsessed with the topic for years". $\endgroup$
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 19:54

Great question! It's like asking what's the difference between a fruit and an apple--an apple is a specific type of fruit. Similarly, the space shuttle(s) were specific examples of spaceplanes. There are a few other space planes that exist and many which have been designed: look up the X-37B, Dream Chaser, or Skylon. The shuttle was just the first spaceplane to actually get built.

There might be a slight terminology subtlety in that a spaceplane is any space-going vehicle which uses wings to generate lift. This could include flying up to the edge of the atmosphere using its wings before entering ballistic orbit. The shuttle didn't do that, and neither does/will the X-37B or Dream Chaser. They launched vertically and use their wings when reentering. However, spaceplanes have been proposed which do "fly" to space, and the Skylon concept is one of those designs.

  • $\begingroup$ How could you miss the Buran? :-) $\endgroup$
    – usr1234567
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ @usr1234567 Buran is often referred to as the Soviet Shuttle, as it was built as a direct response to the US one. Other notable examples include: Von Braun's "ferry rocket" (the concept is that old) and the Spacex Starship (not really a "starship" at all, but Elon said future versions will go to the stars. OK then Elon.) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ @LevelRiverSt: The Starship is not a spaceplane: its aerodynamic surfaces are not wings and they are designed to generate carefully controlled drag rather than lift. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @CharlesStaats Starship is a bit of a grey area. It definitely has flat, adjustable aerodynamic surfaces, so not a simple rocket. Shuttle's wings weren't brilliant at creating lift either, but they did slow re-entry by drag, & control the fall. So they were as much about drag as lift. Main difference is the shuttle had enough aerodynamic surface to be capable of unpowered landing. But Buran was originally supposed to have aux. turbofans for landing. Really it's all a continuum from cylinder to full size wings. Some stealth "planes" are also pretty far from conventional definitions as is skylon $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 22:25

A spaceplane is any spacecraft which can fly like an airplane or a sailplane while it's in the atmosphere. Every spacecraft that acts like that is a spaceplane.

"The Space Shuttle" is the name of a space launch system used by the United States from 1981 to 2011. The Space Shuttle consisted of two solid rocket boosters, one external tank, and one spaceplane. That spaceplane was officially called "the Space Shuttle orbiter," but a lot of people just called it "the Space Shuttle."

The phrase "Space Shuttle" refers only to that one American design. Even if somebody else designs a similar spacecraft, their spacecraft won't be a Space Shuttle.

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    $\begingroup$ Or even “the Shuttle” $\endgroup$
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 17:44

A "shuttle" is some mean of transportation moving on a very frequent schedule (like an "airport shuttle", bus). By the original meaning, a shuttle is a part of the weaving machine that makes lots of movement across the full width of this device.

A spacecraft of the completely different construction, envisioned for the frequent flights, could probably be called the "Space Shuttle" anyway.


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