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Meet The Space Shuttle That Needs No Rocket

A company is building a space plane inspired by experimental NASA projects. The space plane launches using no rocket and lands just like a plane.

A new company is building what NASA has always wanted, a spaceplane that needs no rocket to launch. Spaceplanes are considered the holy grail of spacecraft. They are, in theory, reusable and can carry payloads and astronauts. But they are also expensive and the aerodynamics of wings pose a danger for reentry.

The Artemis mission picks up where the Apollo missions left off, promising the return of humanity to the Moon. This new era of space exploration is also revisiting other projects. The construction of new space stations, more frequent launches, and the permanent presence of humans exploring parts of our solar system, are some of the goals. Inevitably, the next generation of space shuttles is being eyed for their potential to assist in these challenging ventures.


Related: Why The Dream Chaser Space Plane Could Succeed Where The Space Shuttle Failed

The company Radian came out from stealth mode to finally announce what it has been working on, and that happens to be a next-generation spaceplane. The project is the most ambitious space shuttle design ever to exist. It can do what no other space shuttle even dared to imagine. It boosts into space, lifting off using a “sling-shot” high-speed track assist. The plane is also designed to fly in space, perform safe reentries, and land on the tarmac just like an airplane.

The First And Next Generation Space-Planes

Photo via NASA. X-33 Project.

Since the 1950s, even before the Space Shuttle program existed, NASA has been building experimental space planes. The X-15, which flew in 1959, was the first space-rocket plane. Built by NASA and the US Air Force, it was hypersonic. Its special metal body allowed it to do safe atmosphere reentries. NASA tried to scale the plane up when building the Space Shuttle but the costs turned off Congress and compromised the final designs significantly.

After the Space Shuttle was discontinued, space planes kept flying, but only in secret. The US Military has been flying the X-37, an unmanned space plane drone for years. And Sierra Space has a similar drone called Dream Chaser which it plans to scale up to take astronauts into space for the construction of new commercial stations with Blue Origin. The problem is that drones are small, and size is everything when it comes to not burning up during reentry.

Radian’s top minds are familiar with all of these requirements, and many of them used to work for NASA and the Department of Defense, even toiling away on the X-33, another NASA spaceplane project of the 1990s. Livingston Holder, Radian’s co-founder and former head of the X-33 program told Ars Technica that a lot has changed since the 90s. Cryogenic engines and lightweight aerospace composites used to be experimental but now are fully understood. Private space companies breaking into the sector also allow for new routes of investment. Radian expects to be flying by the end of 2020, just in time for the construction of the new US space stations. The company says its spaceplane will fly, land, refuel, and fly again, just like an airplane, but into space. Time will tell if those promises are able to be kept.

Next: NASA Insider Thinks Space Agency Is Ignoring SpaceX’s Starship – Here’s Why

Source: Ars Technica, Radian

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