[Eli5] Why do planes need huge wings but space rockets don’t ?


[Eli5] Why do planes need huge wings but space rockets don’t ?

In: Physics


Planes and rockets fly using different principles.

Planes take advantage of aerodynamics, they use wings that create lift when air moves over them. This allows a plane to fly without needing to use a tremendous amount of force to counter gravity. You only need thrust to push the aircraft forward fast enough to generate lift.

Rockets meanwhile are purely brute force. Chemical propellants create thrust to counter gravity and accelerate them into space. Rockets need to do this because there is no air in space to generate lift, and having wings at some point actually only creates drag and slows the rocket down.

The wings provide lift through a pressure differential. Something that blew my mind when I really thought about it is that the entire weight of the plane is supported by the wings. You can pick up a plane by the wings theoretically.

Rockets don’t need lift to stay in the air. They have rocket fuel and go more or less straight up for a lot of the flight. They do spiral though.

Space rockets do not intend to generate lift with the wings. Where rockets do have wings it is mostly to help control it through the atmosphere. The exception to this was the Space Shuttle which had rather large wings as the Air Force wanted it to be able to glide for long distances so they could perform certain mission profiles which would have made it reenter the atmosphere far from any landing site. They never performed any of these mission profiles. The wings were however quite small compared to airplanes as they had a lot of height to use when gliding meaning that they had no issue doing more falling then gliding.

Ones going vertical, the other horizontal. One is breaking free of gravity and air. The other balancing lift against gravity.