I have seen the Shuttle named a "flying brick" multiple times. However a brick, as understood in the building industry, is a simple rectangular shape without wings and without any adaptation of the form. If the Shuttle was only capable of that much, why could not it be a lifting body like Martin Aircraft X-24?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Wings actually gave the shuttle a better glide ratio than lifting body designs. I'd suggest looking on Space Exploration SE, there's already QA about this subject there. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Nov 8, 2019 at 10:13
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Bear in mind that during the landing flare, the Shuttle, like all aircraft, is briefly in a very shallow - almost flat - glide. Bricks don't do that. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Nov 10, 2019 at 1:19
  • 25
    $\begingroup$ Because "flies like a brick" is preferable to "falls like a brick". $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2019 at 4:30
  • 46
    $\begingroup$ You don't think bricks would fly better if they had wings? $\endgroup$
    – Tal
    Nov 10, 2019 at 5:14
  • 17
    $\begingroup$ I think we need to introduce you to the concepts of "metaphor" and "humour", Mister Data... $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Nov 11, 2019 at 9:15

5 Answers 5


The small wings make it fly like a brick. Without the wings it would fly like a stone.

Seriously, you are taking the expression too literally. The Space Shuttle is landing like a glider plane with a (not so good) glide ratio of about 4.5:1 (see What was the Space Shuttle's glide ratio?). No brick would be able to achieve that.

Designing the Space Shuttle as a lifting body ( ≠ brick) was actually considered. It appears that a lifting body design was not able to comply with the flight envelope requirements.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Bearing in mind that the Shuttle flares onto the runway like any other aircraft; the landing flare for the Shuttle is the same as for any other aircraft - a very shallow glide. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Nov 10, 2019 at 1:21
  • 32
    $\begingroup$ Also, it's always been my understanding that the "flies like a brick" description was more of a reference to its handling than to its glide ratio: you may cover more horizontal distance per unit of altitude drop than a brick would, but if you're the guy behind the controls, and you're accustomed to much more maneuverable vehicles (shuttle pilots have mostly, if not entirely, been drawn from fighter pilots), then the way it feels as you try to get it to go where you want it to, is gonna feel very distinctly brick-like. $\endgroup$ Nov 11, 2019 at 0:39
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ To extend @MatthewNajmon's comment, you often see similar descriptions of cars, e.g. "handles like a boat" which means a wide turning circle and/or not a good steering response. The SS flying like a brick is almost the exact equivalent of a car handling like a boat. $\endgroup$
    – Flater
    Nov 12, 2019 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ Don't forget that the space shuttle flew Mach 25 at up to 45 degrees of angle of attack... any more wing span would probably cause significantly more stress and thus increase weight, weight that takes away payload capacity. The low glide ratio is actually not too bad for reentry, enough to have a shallow descent angle and thus reduce the g-loads and not too shallow to bounce off the atmosphere $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Nov 12, 2019 at 16:42

As everyone has pointed out, it's a joke. Others have answered the lifting-body question (it didn't meet design requirements), so I just wanted to expand some thoughts on the spirit of the "flying brick" nickname.

I suspect whoever came up with the term didn't spend a lot of time analyzing it. However, I think it's significant that the nickname is flying brick - not falling brick. It doesn't imply that the shuttle doesn't have wings or can't fly. Instead, it implies that the vehicle has blunt and non-smooth surfaces which creates tremendous drag (like a brick) and limits its glide ratio.

For my talk on how to land the space shuttle, I created this visual, which I think captures the spirit of the nickname:

Flying Brick

Unfortunately, even though I think you knew this was a joke, a lot of people take jokes and analogies too seriously and turn them into conspiracy theories. I get lots of comments on my talk from people who think that, if the shuttle flies like a brick, it can't possibly be a glider and therefore... space is fake. 🤦🏻‍♂️ (/facepalm) So... I don't think having serious answers to a question like this is a bad thing.

  • 9
    $\begingroup$ What is the "🤦🏻‍♂️" supposed to mean? $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Nov 9, 2019 at 22:39
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @sean that unicode didn't render for me either, so I googled the three characters together, and the top match says emojipedia.org/man-facepalming or emojipedia-us.s3.dualstack.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/thumbs/120/… $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Nov 10, 2019 at 2:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Sean I copied and pasted his 3 characters into google. Try it for yourself $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Nov 10, 2019 at 3:18
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ It's a face-palm emoji. Hard to describe my feelings on the subject better. $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2019 at 23:14
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @Sean Most likely a combining-character emoji that only renders on certain platforms. On Firefox Linux I see a facepalm and the male sign. (Just one more reason to loathe emoji...) $\endgroup$ Nov 11, 2019 at 9:39

In addition to its poor glide ratio the shuttles name also stems from the materials its made from as much as it does its poor glide performance. The Space Shuttle's heat shield was made out of LI-900 Silica tiles that strongly resemble bricks and thus the shuttle was sometimes called the "Flying Brickyard".

If you would like to know why NASA chose a wing design over another capsule or lifting body they actually published an explanation here as to their choices. In short it was a mix of socio-political pressures and old school "airplane" mentality where many of the engineers came from, a large chunk of Air Force requirements driving the original designs and hard engineering reasons that lead to the Delta Wing vehicle that was ultimately built.

In response to the other portion of your question, A lifting body could be used and that is basically the design of Sierra Nevada Corporation's new Dream Chaser.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ I dispute your misnomer theory. the "fly like a brick" joke has always been a reference to its poor gliding ratio, to me. $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Nov 8, 2019 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Federico I guess thats the wrong term to use, call it "another reason why" but i agree ill remove the first sentence. -- Edited--- $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Nov 8, 2019 at 11:52
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Excellent link to NASA's explanation! But I don't see how you come to summarize it as socio-political and airplane mentality. The article is listing a number of hard engineering requirements that couldn't be met. $\endgroup$
    – bogl
    Nov 8, 2019 at 12:01
  • $\begingroup$ @bogl did you click through the links at the bottom of the page to the other sections? There was some prior winged craft design experience. The project was also in part driven by Air Force requirements. It was a mix of a lot of reasons including engineering ones. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Nov 8, 2019 at 12:27
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The Dream Chaser is a project of Sierra Nevada Corporation, not NASA. And if you look at the pictures, it does have quite obvious wings :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 8, 2019 at 17:18

"Flies like a brick" is merely a figure of speech. It comes from personal feelings of the pilot when comparing it to an actual plane.

It's just like the saying that someone is "dumb as a rock". Obviously, even the most stupid person (or even animal) is much smarter than rock. The saying merely expresses the frustration of the speaker when dealing with a person that stupid.

"Flies like a brick" was coined most likely because of combination of its abysmal glide ratio (1:1 at its worst, 4.5:1 at it's best) with simultaneous (and counter-intuitive) reliance on it. Compare it to a 747 which has quite poor glide ratio of 17:1 and it's not supposed to glide. Sailplanes have over 50:1, so that's the kind of performance a sane person would expect from a vehicle that's meant to do nothing but glide.

An actual brick has glide ratio of about 1:10. In fact, the Space Shuttle flies more like the best sailplanes (11× difference) than like a brick (45× difference). Surprisingly, it's marginally better than Concorde at take-off (4:1), but not at speed (12:1).

I couldn't find the glide ratio of an X-24, but it must have been considerably better than 1:1 (to be considered flying instead of falling), so that's still more than 10× better than a brick.


Adding to other answers, yes space shuttle is a brick that flying not just a brick. Body-lifting can not be disregarded in hypersonic flight during the reentry, it is not just the wing creating the lift, it is the whole bottom section hitting the atmosphere.

Looking at another famous spacecraft, Appollo, it doesn't have any conventional wings but NASA uses only CG shift and altitude control to achieve atmosphere skipping because the body lifting from its bottom side. This documentary explains how it is done:

The wing also gives the shuttle huge landing flexibility, or what called the "cross-range" which brings to my third point.

Changing direction in orbit takes a crazy amount of energy and in orbit, you are on "rail" sort of speak. The Earth rotates below you and to return you have to wait until you got a close passage across your landing site. However, with Shuttle's relative big wings, it has a huge of cross-range(it is actually a design goal originally from the Air Force), the shuttle can make big direction change during reentry just like a normal airplane. It has about 1100 nautical miles in cross-range, which means the closest approach to Cape Canaveral could be as far out as in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and still be able to glide back.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.