For anyone old enough to remember the 1980s, the Space Shuttle was an iconic symbol of spaceflight. For thirty years (1981-2011), this program flew 135 missions, which consisted of orbital science experiments, deploying satellites, launching interplanetary probes, participating in the Shuttle-Mir program, deploying the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and constructing the International Space Station (ISS). There were also tragedies along the way, such as the Challenger(1986) and Columbiadisasters (2003).
But here’s an interesting and little-known fact: the actual design of the Space Shuttle could have been entirely different. Rather than the reusable Space Transportation System (STS) and expendable external tank (E.T.) and solid rocket boosters (SRB) we all remember, there was also a concept for a fully-reusable two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane (DC-3). In a lovely video by spaceflight animator Haze Gray Art (YouTube handle Hazegrayart), viewers get a chance to see what a full take-off and landing would have looked like.
SpaceX is getting closer and closer to realizing the design for its Starship and Super Heavy launch system. Once complete, it will be the world’s first fully-reusable launch system and will facilitate trips to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Moon, and Mars. Construction began on the system’s booster element (Super Heavy) this past summer and, according to a recent tweet by Musk, will be “caught” by its launch tower.
On Friday, Sept. 4th, China launched a new and mysterious spacecraft from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The nature (and even appearance) of the spacecraft remains unknown, but according to statements made by Chinese authorities, it’s a reusable spaceplane. This vehicle is essentially China’s answer to the USAF/USSF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which made its sixth launch to space (OTV-6) back in late-May.
For the purpose of restoring domestic launch capability to US soil, NASA launched the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in 2010. Alongside its commercial partners, Boeing and SpaceX, the focus of this program has been to develop crew-capable spacecraft that could deliver payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), something NASA has been unable to do since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.
On May 30th, 2020, the CCP fulfilled its purpose as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft was launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket and successfully delivered two astronauts (Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley) to the ISS. Looking ahead, NASA and SpaceX have modified their contract agreement, which gives the company permission to use previously-flown Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 boosters to send NASA astronauts to the ISS.
The ESA is developing its own spacecraft capable of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The reusable spacecraft is called the Space RIDER (Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return), and the ESA says that the Space Rider will be ready for launch by 2022. It’s being designed to launch on the Vega-C rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
For years now, the program to develop the X-37B spacecraft has been shrouded in secrecy. Originally intended as part of a NASA project to develop a reusable unmanned spacecraft, this Boeing-designed spaceplane was taken over by the Department of Defense in 2004. And while it has been successfully tested on multiple occasions, there remain some unanswered questions as to its intended purpose and what has been taking place during these flights.
This, predictably, has lead to all kinds of rumors and speculation, with some suggesting that it could be a spy plane while others think that it is intended to deliver space-based weapons. It’s latest mission – which was dubbed OTV-4 (Orbital Test Vehicle-4) – has been especially clandestine. And after nearly a year in orbit, it remains unclear what the X37B has been doing up there all this time.