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Is the space shuttle a plane?

The NASA Shuttle, no, the Soviet Buran, yes.

As a Brazilian (see previous comments about the Wright Brothers), I consider that an airplane:

* Is powered, otherwise, it's a glider;

* Can maintain level flight, otherwise, it's just "Falling with style";

* Can take off on it's own, assistance (RATO, catapults) is allowed for short take-offs (like from a carrier);

The Shuttle fails in all that in some point of the flight or another, Buran on the other hand, could be fitted with air breathing jet engines that allowed it to do all that.

...falling with style

I like Douglas Adams' description: The ship hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.

> Can take off on it's own, assistance (RATO, catapults) is allowed for short take-offs (like from a carrier);

Well, by that definition I think the X-15 isn't a plane - it required a B-52 mothership to launch after all. IMO it's hard to find a definition of "plane" that includes the X-15 but not the Space Shuttle stack (not the orbiter on its own - the full stack).

Was the Buran ever actually flown with air-breathing jet engines or is this purely hypothetical fantasy like most of that program?

Before the OK-1 unit did it's unmanned flight, several prototypes were built to test different aspects of the craft, one of these had jet engines and made atmospheric flights, including taking off on it's own.

Not exactly the same Buran that flew, but its atmospheric analog during training and development:


That's pretty cool, I didn't know they did that.

Could the Shuttle not be fitted with jet engines? Or do you mean there was no official spec to actually do that, whereas with the Buran there was?

Nope. Rocket only.

And on descent it was gliding, not under its own power.

I feel like a basic requirement for a plane would be that it can maintain its altitude, so no?

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