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Deutsch: Flugsteuerungssysteme für Luftfahrzeuge / Español: Sistemas de control de vuelo de aeronaves / Português: Sistemas de controle de voo de aeronaves / Français: Systèmes de commande de vol d'aéronefs / Italiano: Sistemi di controllo del volo per aeromobili

An Aircraft flight control system in the space industry refers to the technologies and methods used to manage and control the flight behavior of spacecraft, particularly those aspects borrowed or adapted from aviation technology. These systems are crucial for the operation of spacecraft that enter or exit an atmosphere, such as spaceplanes or reusable launch vehicles.


Image demonstrating Aircraft flight control system in the space industry context
Aircraft flight control system

Aircraft flight control systems in space vehicles operate under similar principles to those in aircraft but are adapted for the unique challenges of space flight. In aircraft, these systems include primary controls like ailerons, elevators, and rudders, which manipulate the aircraft's attitude and direction during flight within an atmosphere. Secondary controls include flaps and slats, which help manage lift and speed during takeoff and landing.

In the context of spacecraft, especially those designed for atmospheric re-entry or operations within planetary atmospheres (like Mars or Venus), adaptations of these traditional flight control systems are employed. These might include:

  • Control Surfaces: Used during atmospheric flight portions of the mission, such as re-entry, landing, or takeoff from a celestial body with an atmosphere. Space Shuttles and other spaceplanes use modified elevators, rudders, and sometimes body flaps to control their descent and landing.
  • Thrust Vector Control: While in space, thrust vectoring helps in altering the spacecraft's orientation and trajectory, similar to how ailerons and elevators control an aircraft. This is done by adjusting the direction of the thrust from the engine nozzles.
  • Reaction Control Systems (RCS): For fine maneuvers in space, RCS thrusters allow for rotational control and small translational adjustments, functioning independently of any atmospheric interaction.

Application Areas

The integration of aircraft-like flight control systems is particularly significant in several areas of space technology:

  1. Reusable Launch Vehicles: For vehicles like the Space Shuttle or SpaceX's Starship, robust flight control systems are necessary for the controlled re-entry and landing back on Earth.
  2. Spaceplanes: Vehicles designed to operate both in space and in atmospheric flight, such as the proposed Skylon spaceplane, rely heavily on these systems.
  3. Mars Aircraft: Proposals and designs for aerial vehicles to explore Mars, like NASA's Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, utilize adapted flight control technologies to operate in the Martian atmosphere.

Well-Known Examples

  • The Space Shuttle utilized a combination of RCS, body flaps, and traditional aerodynamic surfaces (tail rudder and elevons) to control its orientation and flight path during re-entry and landing phases.
  • SpaceX's Starship uses body flaps that dynamically adjust during its descent to control its attitude and speed, showcasing an advanced adaptation of traditional aircraft flight control principles to a fully reusable spacecraft design.

Treatment and Risks

The primary challenge in adapting aircraft flight control systems to spacecraft lies in the vastly different operating environments and the dual need for functionality both in space and in atmospheric flight. This necessitates:

  • High Reliability and Redundancy: Failure of these systems during critical phases like re-entry or landing can be catastrophic.
  • Robust Design: Systems must withstand the mechanical stresses of launch, the vacuum and radiation of space, and the thermal stresses of re-entry.
  • Integration Complexity: These systems must work seamlessly with spacecraft guidance and navigation systems, requiring sophisticated software and feedback loops.


In the space industry, aircraft flight control systems play a vital role in the operational aspects of spaceplanes and other vehicles that transition between space and atmospheric flight. These systems, adapted from traditional aviation technologies, allow for controlled, safe maneuvering during critical phases of a mission, such as launch, re-entry, and landing. The successful integration of such systems is crucial for the feasibility and safety of current and future manned and unmanned spacecraft missions.


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