184. Tail First

The first manmade object to leave the atmosphere and enter space wasn’t American or Russian. It was German. In 1942, V-2 rockets, first as prototypes, then as weapons, entered space routinely at the top of their high-arching flightpath.

That was the picture of spaceflight that lived in the heads of the kids of my generation. On Saturday morning TV shows, heroic young spacemen went off to save the universe and all their spacecraft looked like V-2 rockets. No wonder; this was pre-George Lucas and special effects were minimal. However, captured German footage provided plenty of shots of V-2s taking off.

These Saturday morning specials also landed upright on their tailfins. (Yeah, you guessed it. They ran the films backward.) On Dec 21, 2015, Elon Musk and SpaceX finally pulled that off in the real world. It makes me wonder what he was watching when he was a kid.

In the early days of serious thinking about space, when WW II was freshly over and the V-2 had shown the way, there seemed to be only two ways to land a spacecraft: either tail-first at a prohibitive cost in fuel, or by flying back in a winged craft. Neither was possible with the technology of the day, but the folks at Edwards Air Base were working on the latter, culminating in the X-15 (see 164. Flight Into Space). Later came the Space Shuttle.

In my novel Cyan, VTOL rocket shuttles are used extensively on Earth, and of course are the basis for landing craft on unexplored worlds. There won’t be any runways when we reach Alpha Centauri.

There is actually has a long history of craft designed to explore tail first landings.

X-13 Ryan Vertijet took off vertically, rolled over to horizontal while the pilot changed to a separate set of controls, carried out its mission in horizontal mode, then, at altitude, transitioned again to vertical mode. The pilot then slowly dropped toward the ground to land. The limitations that make this a technology demonstrator rather than a workable aircraft all become obvious near the ground.

Before takeoff, the Vertijet reached the airfield horizontally, hooked to and riding on a trailer. The trailer then lifted like a drawbridge until the Vertijet was vertical, dangling from a cable that hooked under the Vertijet’s nose. It took off from that position, and then returned to the trailer to land. As it approached the ground, traveling nose skyward, the pilot would slide his craft carefully sideways until the nose of his jet came in contact with a horizontal bamboo pole. Using that as a guide, the pilot then moved his craft toward the trailer until his nosehook came into contact with the cable. Then he cut his power; he had landed by reaching a condition of dangling from the cable, bellied up to the vertical bed of the trailer. The trailer was then lowered to horizontal, Vertijet attached.

Not very practical, but it did work. Only two Verijets were built and only a few operational flights were attempted.

The X-14 was of different configuration, with vanes to deflect its thrust. It took off vertically, but with the plane itself horizontal, in the manner of a modern Harrier.

The Lockheed XFV-1 had the power and the configuration for vertical takeoff and landings, but they never managed to work out the issue of pilot control. No successful vertical takeoffs or landings were made. It flew only conventionally with makeshift landing gear bolted to its belly.

The Convair XFY Pogo took off vertically, transitioned to horizontal, and made vertical landings, but only with great difficulty, and only with extremely experienced pilots. It was impractical, largely because the pilot had to look over his shoulder at the ground during vertical landings.

If we could salvage the rear vision camera from any 2016 sedan and send it back by time machine, any one of these craft would have been successful, but in the fifties the idea of looking at the ground while your eyes were skyward was pure science fiction.

Reaching on the moon would require a vertical descent and landing. They built a special craft to train astronauts for that mission. We’ll look at it tomorrow.

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