Aircraft vs Spacecraft: Difference and Comparison

More than a couple of centuries ago, the idea of air travel would have been taken as a joke and laughed off.

But in 1903, the first-ever manned airplane took flight, thanks to the efforts of the Wright brothers and pioneers of air travel before them. In the modern world, with the advent of technology, even space travel has become possible via spacecraft. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Aircraft operate within Earth’s atmosphere, while spacecraft is designed for travel in outer space.
  2. Spacecraft require advanced propulsion systems for movement, whereas aircraft rely on aerodynamic lift.
  3. Aircraft face air resistance and gravity, while spacecraft encounter microgravity and vacuum environments.

Aircraft vs Spacecraft 

The difference between aircraft and spacecraft is that aircraft flies in the air, whereas spacecraft travels in space. Consequently, the forces of drag, friction, and gravity act upon an aircraft mid-flight. These forces are absent are in space and therefore none of these act upon a spacecraft after it exits the earth’s atmosphere. 

Aircraft vs Spacecraft

Aircraft is any vehicle or machine that is capable of flying in the air. An aircraft counteracts the effects of gravity by creating an opposite artificial force.

This force is called the ‘lift’ and it is what enables a simple machine to take flight. Common examples of aircraft include airplanes, hot air balloons, and helicopters. 

A spacecraft is a machine that is designed to fly in space. Spacecraft cannot enter space on their own. They need special machines called launch vehicles to help them exit the earth’s atmosphere and gravity.

While early spacecraft were designed mainly for meteorological and navigational purposes, they have found a much wider field of operation today. 

Comparison Table

Parameters of Comparison Aircraft Spacecraft 
Environment of Flight Air Space 
Body Materials Depends on the type of aircraft Aluminium and titanium alloys, with silicone heat resistant material 
Launch/Flight Thrust and lift enable flight in an aircraft Spacecraft need a huge amount of thrust to launch and exit the earth’s atmosphere 
Height of Flight Most aircraft fly within the height of 10,000-35,000 feet A spacecraft does not fly within the earth’s atmosphere 
Landing Depends on the type of aircraft, but almost all of them let gravity take over with controlled descent After re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, a safe landing is ensured by parachutes 

What is Aircraft?

An aircraft can be called the vehicle of the air. Aircraft are machines that can fly in the air. Flight is enabled in these vehicles by countering the effects of gravity.

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This can be achieved either by an upthrust, or a dynamic lift. The type of lift acting on an aircraft to enable flight depends on the type of the aircraft. 

Heavier-than-air aircraft, or aerodynes, make use of an engine or a propeller (in some cases, both) in order to generate the required thrust to move the aircraft through the air.

Such aircraft include airplanes and helicopters. The movement of air over the wings is what causes the aircraft to fly. It simply makes use of Newton’s Third Law of Motion for movement and flight. 

Lighter-than-air aircraft, or aerostats, use the principle of buoyancy to achieve flight. This type of aircraft makes use of low-density gases such as hydrogen, helium, or even heated-air to float in the air.

The air displaced around the aircraft allows it to float up, and the majority of the motion is controlled by the wind. Aerostats include hot-air balloons and airships. 

The credits of the first flights are hidden in obscurity. The first flying unmanned heavier-than-air aircraft was supposedly invented by Indian aviation scholar and instructor Shivkar Babuji Talpade.

But no historical records of the same can be found. The first manned heavier-than-air aircraft was invented by Otto Lilienthal. 

aircraft 2

What is Spacecraft?

A spacecraft is a machine that is designed to fly in space. When in space, spacecraft fall under the category of artificial satellites.

A spacecraft is unable to exit the earth’s gravitational pull by itself. A specially designed launch system, comprising of launch pads and launch vehicles, is needed to launch a spacecraft into space. 

Launch vehicles are carrier rockets that carry the payload, in this case, a spacecraft, into space. The launch system involves a certain degree of complex groundwork both before and after the actual launch.

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The mission control has to determine the trajectory, actual position of the spacecraft while it is in orbit, and in-flight maneuvers of the spacecraft. 

The environment in space is nothing like it is on earth. Thus, spacecraft have to be designed to withstand the sub-zero temperature and absence of an atmosphere.

A standard spacecraft is made of aluminium and titanium alloys in various parts of its structure and skeleton. Graphite-epoxy composite material are also used due to their strength and rigidity.

Spacecraft have to withstand the extremities of space and survive the immense heat on re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. 

Spacecraft are actively used for earth observation, communication, space travel and navigation, meteorology, planetary exploration, and a future possibility of space colonization.


Main Differences Between Aircraft and Spacecraft

  1. Aircraft, as the name suggests, is a vehicle that operates in the air. Spacecraft similarly operates in space. 
  2. An aircraft needs to oppose the force of gravity in order to fly. This is achieved by lift and thrust. Spacecraft use rocket engines to escape the earth’s atmosphere. 
  3. When in flight, aircraft utilize the atmospheric oxygen for breathing regardless of the type of aircraft, whereas due to the absence of oxygen in space, an artificial atmosphere has to be created in a spacecraft. 
  4. Spacecraft have to be built in a way that they can withstand the temperature and pressure in space as well as the re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. In contrast, aircraft are built to withstand conditions within the earth’s atmosphere. 
  5. Aircraft in motion is acted upon by gravity, thrust, drag, and lift. There is no external guiding force in space on a spacecraft except the rocket thrusters and engine.
Difference Between Aircraft and Spacecraft



Last Updated : 13 July, 2023

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