COMMENTARY | As a sometimes pilot, I understand the deep seated need of people to have control of the vehicles in which they travel. Whether it is a submarine, a Cessna or a spacecraft. For that reason, the space shuttle was a huge advance over previous spacecraft -- there were pilots on board who could use their training and nerves to overcome design faults, programming errors or bad weather. Previous U.S. spacecraft had some capability to steer but it was limited.
Now with the retirement of the space shuttle, most space efforts are concentrating on capsules -- a vehicle that relegates the commander and pilot to the role of monitoring gauges. The sole flying vehicle for people is the venerable Soyuz capsule where you can scarcely move during landing, much less control anything.
Is there a future for a space vehicle that has even vestigial wings, and can be steered to a landing on a runway? Why would we want a winged vehicle, aren't capsules good enough? The good news is that winged space vehicles are flying today -- the Air Force has two X-37B winged vehicles that are taking turns flying. But they do not carry people.
Unfortunately, we must leave the Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2, the vehicle developed after the Burt Rutan-built Spaceship 1 demonstrated a new type of winged space vehicle, for a future article. It will only be suborbital.
If all goes well, the Sierra Nevada company will fly its Dreamchaser winged vehicle, this will also be an orbital system. It will be launched into space on an Atlas rocket and land on a runway like a space shuttle.
OK, so why are two of the main companies (SpaceX and Boeing) building capsules, and why is the NASA/Lockheed effort (the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle) a capsule? Safety is one advantage and cost is another. Capsules can be landed with very little input from the crew -- as long as the capsule re-enters the atmosphere in the right attitude it mostly lands itself.
The two scary parts of re-entry are when the capsule enters the atmosphere -- for that they have a very rugged heat shield that is covered during launch (and so not affected by weather on the pad, or damage to it during ascent). And when it hits the surface -- the Soyuz capsule brakes with rockets and parachutes, most capsules parachute into the water. This is a phase that can cause injury to the crew member but people can be elaborately cushioned. Capsules also are not reused -- so you get a new (untried) one every flight.
Winged vehicles provide two main advantages -- they can more easily be designed for reuse, and that could translate into cost savings. It is possible to have a more benign re-entry into the atmosphere, we have a lot of history now of safe re-entries.
They also provide a far better landing condition for people and payloads -- there is no sudden deceleration at landing. They are also likely to be on a runway somewhere, and can be towed into a hanger rather than being recovered from a desert or ocean miles from a support base. But winged vehicles do have to devote more of the mission weight to the vehicle, with proportionally less volume to the payload.
Both capsules and winged vehicles have had their losses -- several Soviet and U.S. missions have been lost.
It remains to be seen whether capsules or winged vehicles predominate over the next few decades, possibly a compromise like a Rogallo wing could be used to land a capsule.
Charles Phillips has had a long career in several areas: he has worked in space operations since 1978, he was an Air Force officer from 1978 until he retired in 2005 (working in space, communications, and maintenance), and he has been a writer all of that time. Now he finds the stories that people are interested in but might have been missed by other reporters.