When you think about it, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that man has achieved space travel. It’s just an accepted part of our daily lives that mankind successfully managed to go from the surface of the earth to the outer reaches of space. Why pretend that’s not incredible? To truly appreciate this feat, it’s worth understanding how all the moving parts work. Let’s begin with spaceships and rockets.

Spaceship vs Rocket: Full Comparison

A spaceship is a spacecraft controlled by a crew.

When hearing about the latest NASA launch, there are a lot of unfamiliar words that get tossed around by astronauts and experts alike. It can be difficult to know what it all means without an explanation for those of us who aren’t NASA astronauts. For instance, what are the similarities and differences between a spaceship and a rocket? What are the features that set them apart from one another? This article will help outline those similarities and differences and attempt to make some sense of their distinguishing features. We’ll begin with a side-by-side comparison, then look at the similarities and differences after that.

Spaceship vs Rocket: Side-by-Side Comparison

What it is:A vehicle used for space travelAn engine used to create thrust
Main Use:Spaceflight missionsLaunching spacecraft into space
Invented:October 4th, 1957March 16th, 1926 
First Use:With its 1957 launch, Russia’s Sputnik 1 became the first spaceship to reach orbitWhile rockets had been around since 1100 AD, the first liquid propellant rocket was invented in 1926
Created By:EnergiaRobert Goddard
Key Features:Thrusters, communication systems, aeroshell, parachutesFuel load, fins, pumps, guidance system
Key Differences:Spaceships transport astronauts Space travel rockets are not manned

Spaceship vs Rocket: What’s the Difference?

Now that we’ve seen the two compared side-by-side, let’s take a look at the distinguishing features of both spaceships and rockets.

Spaceship: The Complete History

A spaceship — also known as spacecraft — is a vehicle made to transport astronauts to space and allow them to fly throughout the galaxy. Originally deriving their design and their use from satellites, spacecraft are now used for a variety of purposes including observation, meteorology, navigation, exploration, and more. 

While there are countless differences between spaceships from different manufacturers, the average spaceship consists of a handful of key components: Thrusters (a guidance system), a communication system, fuel, and an aeroshell and parachutes. The thrusters are used to move the spaceship this way or that, but they differ from rockets because they’re much less powerful and don’t fall away from the vehicle. The guidance system helps the spaceship land on a planet or dock at a space station. The communication system and fuel are pretty self-explanatory; the former helps the astronauts talk back and forth with their mission control, and the latter helps the spaceships’ thrusters. Lastly, the aeroshell and parachutes assist in the spaceship’s re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere so that the astronauts can return home safely.

Spaceships can be crewed, semi-crewed, or uncrewed, but their intent remains the same regardless – to fly in outer space, carry cargo, and make observations. Additionally, spaceships can be sub-orbital or orbital. Sub-orbital spaceships enter space and then come back to the earth’s surface without fully orbiting the earth. These spaceships are typically recoverable. Orbital spaceships, on the other hand, enter a full orbit around the planet. These ships are traditionally unrecoverable.

Rocket: The Complete History

A rocket must obtain thrust from a rocket engine in order to launch.

The word “rocket” can have several meanings. Beyond space travel rockets, which are used to help lift a launch vehicle or space shuttle out of the atmosphere and toward the stars and planets beyond, rockets can also refer to weapons, fireworks, and even a leafy vegetable. For all intents and purposes, we’ll be discussing space travel rockets.

In essence, a rocket is a projectile that thrusts a spaceship into space. Its design is to expel propellant through the exhaust, propelling massive amounts of thrust toward the ground to push the spacecraft upward at the high speeds necessary to reach space. Because of the science behind their design, rockets are capable of working in the vacuum of space. Some even work better in space than on earth.

The design of space travel rockets consists of several key components: fuel load, fins, pumps, and the guidance system. The fuel load is what the rocket uses to help the launch vehicle to the high speeds needed to travel to space. The fins — located at the bottom of the rocket — give the launch vehicle stability, helping to keep the space shuttle on course. The pumps are the part of the design that physically push the fuel where it needs to be. Lastly, the guidance system sets and maintains the course, allowing both the astronauts and the folks back at NASA to see the rocket’s progress and assess any technical issues. 

Once the rocket helps the launch vehicle reach space, it can officially clock out. In other words, the rocket is then programmed to fall away from the spaceship and return to earth. While scientists haven’t traditionally cared much about a rocket’s landing as long as it is kept away from civilian harm, there have been several recent advances in landing technology. These advances include safely landing the rocket back down to earth to be reused or repurposed again.

Spaceship vs Rocket: Five Must-Know Facts

  • Rockets and spaceships are two parts of the same launch process. In other words, rockets help the spaceship reach space.
  • The spaceship was invented nearly 30 years after the invention of the rocket.
  • Rockets tend to be much cheaper than spaceships. A rocket could cost around $50-60 million, while a spaceship can cost as much as $40-50 billion.
  • Spaceships are traditionally reused, while rockets don’t always have to be.
  • Rockets are always unmanned, while spaceships can be crewed or uncrewed.

Spaceship vs Rocket: What Are the Main Differences? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What are the differences between a rocket and a spaceship?

The primary differences between rockets and spaceships are as follows: Rockets take the spaceship to space, then fall back to earth. Spaceships can be manned or unmanned, but rockets are never manned. Additionally, rockets have more power than spaceships.

What are rockets and spaceships used for?

Rockets are used to help spaceships reach space. Spaceships are used for space travel.

What are the three main parts of a space shuttle?

The three main parts of a space shuttle are the solid rocket boosters, the external tank, and the orbiter.

What allows a rocket to be aerodynamic?

It all comes down to velocity. (Or, rather, the difference in velocity.) The motion of the rocket through the air creates the lift and drag that makes the rocket aerodynamic.

What were the six space shuttles?

The six NASA space shuttles were Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.

How do rockets and spaceships land?

Rockets and spaceships use a combination of gravity, thrusters, and parachutes to land safely back to earth.

Where do rockets and spaceships launch from?

For the past 60 years or so, NASA rockets and spaceships have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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