This is why we Can’t Fly a Plane into Space: The Future of Space Travel

There are several reasons but this article will help you know why we Can’t Fly a Plane into Space

When the Wright Brothers took their first flight over a century ago, they could not have foreseen the ubiquity of air travel in our world today. We now witness approximately 100,000 flights taking off and landing globally each day, making air travel a commonplace experience. As we push the boundaries of aviation, the next frontier beckons—space. The question arises: can commercial planes reach space? In this article, we will explore the technical limitations, challenges, and potential solutions that distinguish traditional commercial jets from spaceplanes designed to journey beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

How High Can Commercial Planes Go?

Commercial jets, while achieving impressive altitudes of up to 40,000 feet or even 60,000 feet for supersonic aircraft like the Concorde, fall significantly short of the height required to enter orbital space. The Earth’s atmosphere begins to thin out considerably at these altitudes, creating an environment where planes face challenges they were not designed to overcome.

Several factors render commercial planes unsuitable for space travel. Firstly, the forces that act on an aircraft, including lift, weight, thrust, and drag, play a crucial role in flight. However, these forces are designed for Earth’s atmosphere, which significantly differs from the vacuum of space. In space, gravitational forces and air resistance are absent, rendering an aircraft’s traditional design ineffective.

Temperature is another critical factor. Re-entering Earth’s atmosphere generates immense heat, a challenge that space shuttles are equipped to withstand with specialized protective shielding. Commercial planes, on the other hand, lack the necessary resilience and would succumb to the extreme heat upon re-entry.

As planes ascend, the air becomes thinner, which poses problems for their ability to maintain lift. At a certain altitude, known as the “Coffin Corner,” planes can neither speed up nor slow down nor climb any higher. This results in a precarious situation that can only be resolved by reducing altitude during a controlled descent.

Engine Power and Air Combustion

Commercial airplane engines, even in their most powerful forms like the Boeing 747’s engines, lack the thrust required to propel an aircraft through the atmosphere and into space. To achieve this feat, around 7.2 million pounds of thrust are necessary, a magnitude far beyond what conventional airplane engines can deliver. Moreover, airplane engines rely on the presence of air for combustion, which is virtually nonexistent in space. This fundamental requirement of “air” in “airplanes” becomes a major issue when transitioning into the vacuum of space.

Real-World Examples of Spaceplane Mishaps

As history attests, attempts to push the boundaries of commercial aviation have sometimes ended in tragedy. One such example is the Pinnacle Airlines Flight 3701 in 2004, where pilots ventured to fly their Bombardier CRJ200 to an altitude that exceeded its limits, resulting in engine failure, a fatal crash, and the loss of both crew members.

The Solution to Fly a Plane into Space

Although commercial planes cannot reach space, spaceplanes offer an alternative. These vehicles can function both as aircraft within Earth’s atmosphere and as spacecraft once they break free from it. Notable spaceplanes include the U.S. Space Shuttle, the Russian Buran, the U.S. X-37, and the Chinese CSSHQ.

The U.S. Space Shuttle, with its partially reusable design, operated from 1981 to 2011 and could transport astronauts and cargo to and from space. The Buran-class spacecraft from Russia shared similarities with the Space Shuttle but had some design distinctions, including fully automated landings and crewless missions.

More recently, the Boeing X-37B, introduced in 2010, serves as a reusable robotic craft that remains in orbit to support research and exploration. It can return to Earth and land as a spaceplane. The CSSHQ from China, introduced in 2020, mirrors the functions of other spaceplanes and contributes to the growing spaceplane landscape.

Suborbital Space Travel for Tourists

Commercial space travel is no longer a distant dream. Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, completed its first commercial flight into space in 2023. The suborbital ride offered a brief taste of weightlessness and opened the door to space-based tourism, albeit at a steep price of around $450,000 per seat. However, organizations like Space for Humanity aim to make space travel more accessible, offering opportunities for non-professionals to experience suborbital flights.

A Glimpse into the Future

While current spaceplanes offer suborbital experiences, a new generation of spaceplanes is on the horizon. Sierra Space is developing the Dream Chaser, a winged commercial spaceplane capable of carrying cargo and passengers to low Earth orbit. Sierra Space is also working on the LIFE habitat, a versatile space station module offering a variety of amenities and research facilities for occupants.

Beyond suborbital flights, commercial space stations like the Orbital Reef and Starlab are being planned. These space-based facilities will facilitate business, research, and tourism. While some concerns exist about the tight timelines for these projects, many believe that the transition to commercial space stations is not far off.

Commercial planes may not reach the expanse of space, but spaceplanes, and the burgeoning space tourism industry, are breaking new ground in making space travel more accessible. Suborbital flights and commercial space stations are no longer the stuff of science fiction; they are becoming a reality. As technology advances, the dream of an ordinary person purchasing a business-class ticket to the stars becomes ever more attainable. Space travel is poised to usher in a new era of exploration and adventure, one that extends beyond the confines of our planet and into the cosmos.

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