What are the reasons why planes can't go into space?


  • $\begingroup$ What does a forward-swept aircraft wing have to do with your question? Can you define "space"? Altitude higher than the Karman line? $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 1:15
  • $\begingroup$ Closely related $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 1:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Err... Have you forgotten the Space Shuttle? Or the Air Force's X37b? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ They can, and have. So many of them actually. Especially into space, not orbit. You have rocket powered ones like X15 and space shuttle. Rocket carried ones like X37 and Buran, jet powered ones like Mig-31. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 4:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Fattie: On the contrary, the Shuttle had its own engines, It used a droppable fuel tank and rocket-assisted takeoff, both of which have been used by military airplanes since WWII. Likewise, there are airplanes that can do vertical takeoffs (the Harrier, the Convair Pogo: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convair_XFY_Pogo ) and vertical climbs under power. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 4:51

2 Answers 2


Basically it's because they have engines that need atmospheric oxygen for thrust. Stick a rocket motor on it, with enough power to achieve escape velocity, and provide a self contained compressed gas source for pressurization at say 10 or 15 thousand feet cabin altitude and make the pressure hull fully air tight (airplanes normally leak quite a lot), and away you go to the stars if you like.

Of course, now you have to get back down without burning up so you need maneuvering thrusters to control attitude on re-entry, and you need some kind of heat shield...

After working all that out, voila! You end up with the Space Shuttle.

  • $\begingroup$ Oddly enough the Buran had air-breathing jet engines. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ Wasn't that for landing or something? $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, it was only to be used during reentry and landing. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ The rest of the rocket was just there to carry the fuel needed to get the space shuttle up there. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 10:16
  • $\begingroup$ Just for the record, I feel the "pressurized" bit is pretty irrelevant, right? A number of aircraft (military etc) are not pressurized right? The dudes have to wear spacesuits. Actually, was the Vostok and other early craft pressurized or did they have to wear suits exclusively?? $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 17:12

There are two major problems with trying to take an aeroplane to space.

  1. The engines are air breathing, this makes them far more efficient than rocket engines, but means they only work over a relatively narrow range of speeds and atmospheric densities.
  2. Planes are designed with wings to use aerodynamic lift, this is far more efficient than directing thrust downwards, but again a given set of wings is only effective over a relatively narrow range of speeds and atmospheric densities.

There is a big gap between the highest speed/thinnest atmosphere at which aerodynamic flight with air breathing engines is practical and the lowest speed/thickest atmosphere at which orbit is practical. So-far the only successful way to get into orbit has been to brute-force through with big multi-stage rockets.


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