As planes aren’t designed to exit the Earth’s atmosphere, a plane is unable to fly into space.
Because planes depend on the flow of air into their engines and over their wings to generate lift for flying, a plane attempting to fly into space wouldn’t experience the forces it needs to fly outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
If a plane tried to fly into space, it would eventually reach an altitude at which it couldn’t generate enough lift to fly and would then fall to the ground.
A plane also couldn’t withstand the harsh temperatures of exiting the Earth’s atmosphere.
While it’s currently not possible for commercial planes to fly into space, we may have space-faring planes in the future since many countries are attempting to build them.
Table of Contents
- 1 4 Reasons Planes Can’t Fly Into Space
- 2 What Would Happen If a Plane Attempted to Fly Into Space?
- 3 How High Planes Can Fly
- 4 Spaceplanes That Have Flown Into Space
- 5 Planes Might Be Able to Fly Into Space in the Future
4 Reasons Planes Can’t Fly Into Space
Planes cannot fly into space for the following 4 reasons:
1. The forces acting on a plane would be different in space
Airplanes have 4 forces acting on them.
The vertical forces are lift, which pushes a plane upwards, and weight (which pushes a plane downwards).
The horizontal forces are thrust (which pushes a plane forward) and drag (which pushes a plane backward).
Planes are designed to fly under these 4 forces, but they’re different in space.
Since the same consistent gravitational force and air resistance isn’t present in space, the principles that generate lift, that enable a plane to fly, aren’t present anymore.
2. The heat produced when reentering or exiting the atmosphere
Entering or exiting the Earth’s atmosphere generates heat.
Space shuttles use protective shielding to withstand this heat, but planes aren’t equipped with this shielding, so planes simply aren’t built to withstand the immense heat that exiting and especially reentering the Earth’s atmosphere produces.
Even if a plane managed to shield itself from the heat, its internal temperature would still be too hot for passengers to remain on board.
3. The type of air in space
The air is thinner the higher you fly in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult to fly a plane at higher altitudes.
The lack of air prevents planes from experiencing the lift and drag forces they rely on to fly, so a plane can’t realistically fly into space and maintain its lift.
4. The power of the engine
Airplane engines can’t generate the thrust needed to leave the atmosphere, which is around 7.2 million pounds.
The Boeing 747 and other similar commercial planes generate around 63,300 pounds of thrust, which is an order of magnitude less than the required thrust to leave the atmosphere.
What Would Happen If a Plane Attempted to Fly Into Space?
If a plane attempted to fly into space, it would reach a certain maximum altitude within the Earth’s atmosphere that the plane is designed to fly to.
After reaching this point, the plane would immediately fall to the ground due to being incapable of generating enough lift at high altitudes to fly.
How High Planes Can Fly
A plane can fly as high as anywhere between 15,000 to 65,000 feet in the air, depending on the type of plane and its design.
- Small Planes: Most small planes can fly no higher than 15,000 feet.
- Private Planes: Most private planes can fly as high as 45,000 feet.
- Commercial Airliners: Commercial airliners fly as high as 42,000 feet.
- Military Planes: Fighter jets, like the F-22, can fly as high as 65,000 feet.
Spaceplanes That Have Flown Into Space
4 spaceplanes have successful flown into space:
- The Space Shuttle
- Boeing X-37
The fifth will likely be the Dream Chaser, which is still under development.
1. The Space Shuttle
The Space Shuttle was a partially reusable space plane that took off vertically and landed horizontally.
The Space Shuttle relied on rocket boosters for exiting the Earth’s atmosphere and atmospheric lift for returning to the ground.
The Buran was a Soviet space shuttle that could complete unmanned space flights.
Like the American Space Shuttle, it was also a vertical take-off and horizontal landing (VTHL) craft.
3. Boeing X-37
The Boeing X-37 is an orbital spacecraft developed by Boeing and used by the United States.
It’s designed to orbit the Earth for long periods of time for testing and experimentation purposes.
The X-15 is an American supersonic experimental aircraft that was introduced in the 1950s and flew into space in the 1960s.
The spaceplane collected invaluable research data while in space.
Planes Might Be Able to Fly Into Space in the Future
Commercial space travel is currently too expensive for 99.9% percent of the population.
But several countries, including the U.S. and China, are developing ways to make space travel more affordable, so it’s likely possible and within reach that planes will be able to fly into space in the future.
- Planes can’t fly into space because they’re not designed to exit the Earth’s atmosphere.
- Flight depends on the interaction of forces within the Earth’s atmosphere, especially lift and drag, which don’t exist in the same way in space.
- Modern planes also don’t have the protective shielding or engines needed to fly into space and withstand the immensely high temperatures generated by exiting and entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
- Planes might fly into space in the future, which is a goal for many countries.
- The United States, China, India, and Russia all have programs for developing space-faring aircraft for commercial use. So it’s possible for us to be able to enjoy commercial space-faring planes in the future.
Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.
Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.
Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.