Gizmo-Intensive: The Real Purpose of the Space Plane?

March 4, 2011
David Wright
Former contributor

I’ve co-authored several posts in recent months analyzing the utility of the space plane—a small, un-piloted Space Shuttle. Those posts have made the point that we can’t find a mission for which the space plane seems well-suited compared to alternatives.

So, what’s going on? It’s occurred to me that maybe the system is more technology-driven than mission-driven.

And recently, as I was calculating launch costs and delta-V’s of the X-37B prototype space plane, I recalled an analysis I’d read of the Space Shuttle in 1995, which may shed light on the motivation behind the space plane as well.

This appears in the highly acclaimed analytic work Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys (p. xiv):

Probably the ultimate example of the fundamental guy drive to have neat stuff is the Space Shuttle. Granted, the guys in charge of this program claim it has a Higher Scientific Purpose, namely to see how humans function in space. But of course we have known for years how humans function in space: They float around and say things like: “Looks real good, Houston!”

No, the real reason for the existence of the Space Shuttle is that it is one humongous and spectacularly gizmo-intensive item of hardware. Guys can tinker with it practically forever, and occasionally even get it to work, and use it to place other complex mechanical items into orbit, where they almost immediately break, which provides a great excuse to send the Space Shuttle up again. It’s Guy Heaven.

A similar explanation for the space plane makes as much sense as any other I’ve seen, especially since the Space Shuttle program is ending. It may even explain my own interest in the space plane.