China is reportedly developing a reusable space vehicle that could launch atop a rocket and land like an airplane. If true – and if the development produces an operational vehicle – China will join the U.S. in the exclusive club of nations with so-called “space planes.”
Reusable space vehicles offer big advantages over other spacecraft. Able to maneuver in orbit carrying a deployable payload, they combine the qualities of a rocket and a satellite. Being re-usable, they can be cheaper than “throw away” vehicles. And landing like an airplane, they can gently return delicate equipment to Earth.
The U.S. Space Shuttle, recently retired, was the first operational space plane. The Soviet Union developed its own version of the Shuttle, but never placed it into service. As a partial replacement for the manned Shuttle, the U.S. Air Force introduced two copies of the Boeing-made X-37B robotic space plane that’s barely a quarter the length of the Shuttle but cheaper.