Tag Archives: aviation

358. X-37b

This picks up where 343. Black Shuttles leaves off.

The Air Force has wanted space for a long time, since it’s beginning actually. NASA took its MISS program and turned it into Mercury. The Air Force wanted the Dyna-soar, but Gemini beat them out in a fight for appropriations. The Air Force coopted Gemini for a manned reconnaissance station, but unmanned satellites did the job sooner and cheaper. There were rumors that Skylab was largely an Air Force observation post disguised as a science station. Possibly true, but it seems doubtful. Finally they got the Space Shuttle, at least part time, but civilian cautions after the Challenger disaster threw off the Air Force schedule and they fell back on their own resources.

Luke Skywalker got to fly a spaceplane and blow up the Deathstar. The Air Force never did. Okay, maybe the Aurora will change that, if it exists.

(What the heck is Aurora? It is either a follow on to the SR-71 or a myth. Conspiracy theorists believe in it, and the rest of us aviation and space crazies want to. I’ll do a post on it some day.)

What the Air Force ended up with was a highly capable unmanned vehicle called the X-37b. So far it has only flown four missions, but they are all long duration. The latest ended early this month, May 7th, when the craft landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a mission of 718 days.

What can I tell you about the mission? That is a lot like the Aurora. Except for the fact that X-37b does exist, and the Aurora may not (probably doesn’t) exist, everything else is classified.

I gave you a link in Black Shuttles for more information, and warned you that it would be frustrating because of the secrecy involved. I have no such link for X-37b. Google it and chase down the conspiracy sites if you want entertainment. If you want facts, join DARPA. Then maybe you can find out which building houses the facts, but they still won’t tell you about them.

I can tell you a bit about the craft itself. It looks like a miniature space shuttle, about 29 feet long, about 10 feet tall, with a 15 foot wingspan. It is launched inside a streamlined shroud on top of an Atlas 5 missile. It has a payload bay about equivalent to a medium pickup bed.

The program started in 1999 and is closely linked to the X-40, which ultimately became a drop-model test bed for data needed to build the X-37b. NASA transferred the project to the military in 2004 and it disappeared into the black world.

X-37b is a scaled up version of the X-40, so early versions had to undergo additional drop tests, this time using a Scaled Composites White Knight (mother ship for the SpaceShipOne program).

To date, there have been four missions, all launched from Cape Canaveral. The first three landed at Vandenberg. The fourth mission landed on the old Space Shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center.

The future of manned space fighters does not look promising. Most of the new X craft (X-40 through X-57, so far) are unpiloted, but that is simply a cost issue. However, the X-45/46 and X-47 are pilot programs (yes, pun intended) for unpiloted operational fighter jets.

Would-be Luke Skywalkers need not apply. Sorry.

357. Mike Mars and Project Quicksilver

If you Google Mike Mars, you’ll get Mick Mars, lead guitarist for Mötley Crüe. In fact, if that is how you got here, sorry about that. The only connection, besides spelling similarity, is that Mick Mars is of the right age to have read Mike Mars when he was a kid.

Our Mike Mars is a fictional astronaut from a fictional project called Quicksilver. The series was written by Donald A. Wollheim.

The eight Mike Mars books were unique in science fiction. They were so tied to the moment that they became outmoded on publication. They were both strikingly accurate and completely false. They were less of an alternative reality than a conspiracy theory version of the early 60s.

Here’s the setup. Project Mercury has selected seven astronauts, who will conquer space for America – ostensibly. They are all military test pilots of great experience. At the same time, a second, secret space program is being formed to duplicate their work, using hot young (read: expendable) pilots just out of fighter training, but no one will know of their flights. And they will do their thing just a hair sooner than the old guys. The project is called Quicksilver.

I look at that paragraph today with awe at how dumb the notion was. When I found Mike Mars, Astronaut on the shelf at the hobby store where I bought my books, I flipped at how cool it all was. It was 1961; I was 13 years old.

Thirteen is the golden age of science fiction. (I didn’t make that up; it’s a well known cliché.) Thirteen is also the age when you like things you wouldn’t even look at a few years later.

Mike Mars is the nickname of Michael Alfred Robert Samson, one of the young pilots chosen to participate in Project Quicksilver. The first novel takes him through selection and early training until he is chosen as one of the young astronauts. It also includes a murderous saboteur and makes the reader aware that one of the seven, Rod Harger, is a traitor. After all, this is a book for boys, designed to sit on the shelf beside the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr.. Just being an astronaut isn’t exciting enough to give a climax every fifth page.

In Mike Mars Flies the X-15, the seven Quicksilver astronauts get glide flights in the X-15, and one of them will get to make a powered flight into space. (Guess who gets the powered flight.) We become more aware that six of the young astronauts are patriotic team players, but Rod Harger is in it for the power and the fame, and his father has thugs at the ready to tip the scales his way. This sets the pattern for the books — about half an accurate portrayal of training and flights and about half Hardy Boys style chasing crooks through empty hangers.

In Mike Mars at Cape Canaveral, Mike rides a Redstone rocket in a sub-orbital flight, after spending half the book fighting off more saboteurs.

In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit, followed shortly by John Glenn. The Russian’s had won — except that those of us reading the Mike Mars series knew that Mike beat both of them in Mike Mars in Orbit. But, of course, he could never tell.

(True believers like me knew that Rick Brant had beaten all of them into space, back in 1958 aboard the Pegasus in The Scarlet Lake Mystery, but that was an accident and, of course, he could never tell either.)

In Mike Mars Flies the Dyna-Soar (see 342. Dyna-soar) Wollheim finally ran out of reality. The first four books had involved real hardware, but the real-life Dyna-soar was never finished. Space kids all over America forgave him however, as we flew with Mike to rescue a fellow astronaut in the coolest spacecraft that was never built.

There were three additional books, Mike Mars, South Pole Spaceman, Mike Mars and the Mystery Satellite, and Mike Mars Around the Moon. They never came to my hobby shop bookshelf, so I never saw them. It would be pointless to seek them out now. Within five years, alternative versions of early space travel had gone from unthinkable to not worth thinking about. NASA and the Russians made the conquest of space real, and I had grown beyond kiddy books.

But God the ride was fun while it lasted.


Meanwhile, back in the real world, the secret military space drone, X-37b, recently landed at Kennedy Space Center after it’s longest flight to date. We will see how the Air Force is still trying for a Mike Mars reality in tomorrow’s post.

312. Popular Science

full-futurecars-4When I was twelve or thirteen, my great grandfather said to me, “I used to read Popular Mechanics. You should, too.” And he handed me a quarter. It was the best piece of advice any relative ever gave me.

I bought my first popular science magazine, and I was hooked. I was soon buying three a month every month, and occasionally a fourth. Science and Mechanics, no longer published, was the best. Popular Science came next, then Popular Mechanics. Mechanix Illustrated was a lame imitation, but I always looked and occasionally bought, if there was a particularly interesting article.

In school, I usually devoured my science textbooks by the end of the first month of the school year. They provided an important, basic, bare bones understanding. But the popular science magazines put exciting flesh and blood on those bones. I learned more science from those three popular science magazines than I ever learned from a textbook.

Those were the days when GEMs were new. Ground effect machines, that is. There were articles that explained how they worked (what shape plenum chamber do you prefer?) but better still, there were articles that showed guys who had built their own out of plywood and a lawn mower engine, flying down the street of their suburban neighborhoods, six inches off the ground.

When I sent ten scientists to explore Cyan, they used skimmers, which were clearly ground effect machines.

There were always articles on how to take care of your car, and there was the new car issue every fall. You didn’t have to be a science nut to like cars.

There were always stories about the newest, hottest jet plane, including a story about a new safety device that gave pre-recorded error messages into the earphones of a pilot. The Air Force had discovered that the pilot never missed the message if the recording was a sultry female voice. Any thirteen year old boy in America could have told them that. The illustration of that article was a realistic drawing of a helmeted pilot with a tiny, bikini-clad femme whispering into his ear the words that would save him.

These guys knew their target audience.

Not everything between those covers would be politically correct today. I remember the pistol crossbow, a powerful hand-held weapon that shot sharpened six-inch pieces of quarter inch rod. Try making that in your seventh grade shop class. Maybe you could get a merit badge in Boy Scouts?

Probably not.

There were always articles on how to build something in your shop, about the latest tools, or about how to build the tools you couldn’t afford. I was hooked on that, too. My father was a farmer, not a craftsman. If a nail in a board would do the job, he was satisfied, and moved on to the next of an unending set of chores. I wanted more. I wanted to be a craftsman. Today I am, and these are the magazines that got me started on that path.

Eventually, I stopped reading popular science magazines. You can only read so many thousand articles at that level until you have absorbed enough. I moved on, but I didn’t forget how powerfully they ignite young imaginations.

When I became a teacher in a small middle school, all the other teachers were happy to load science onto me, and I was glad to accept. I taught all subjects the first year, but after that it was “science-and”. Every year I taught more science and less “and”.

The first year I subscribed to Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (Science and Mechanics was long dead), and soon I added Smithsonian Air and Space. I bought a magazine rack at a garage sale and put it up in my room. I never threw a magazine away until it was too tattered to read, and after a few years there were a hundred magazines in the rack.

Occasionally, at the end of an hour, there would be a few minutes to spare and I would say, “You can either do homework for another class, or read one of the science magazines.” It was the best advice I ever gave them.

And nobody chose homework.

256. The Space Station That Never Was

 275px-mol_usafI love conspiracy theories. I don’t believe them, but they’re fun.

We do know that much is hidden from us. The SR-71 Blackbird was a myth, sworn not to exist, for most of it’s operational life, so why not believe in the Aurora, or at least wish it were real and dream up stories that use it.

The problem with actually believing in conspiracies is that most conspirators are too dumb to pull them off. Still, occasionally . . .

In 2005 two spacesuits of unknown origin were found in a locked room in a NASA museum. They were not connected with any known program, and presented a mystery to be solved. The story of chasing that mystery was well told by NOVA in its 2008 episode Astrospies. A decade after the discovery, and seven years after the NOVA program, files and photos were declassified and the secrets of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory were fully revealed.

The Air Force has long had a hand in spaceflight. As early as 1957, it funded development of a spaceplane, the X-20 Dyna-Soar. Ultimately that project was scrapped because of the success of the Mercury and Gemini programs, but USAF shifted goals to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and continued.

The existence Manned Orbiting Laboratory project was not secret. It was announced in 1963 but most of what went on was not revealed to the public. Essentially, it was an orbiting spy station designed to take pictures of military interest. MOL was a single use vehicle. It was designed to be launched, used for a forty day mission, then abandoned. At that time the crew would return via a Gemini B capsule which was launched with the MOL.

MOL was designed for a stacked launch. The launch vehicle was to carry the MOL with the manned Gemini B in place at the top. Once in polar orbit, the Gemini B would be powered down and the two astronauts would move into the MOL where they would spend their mission taking pictures of the Earth through advanced camera system called KH-10. At the end of the mission, the astronauts would reactivate the Gemini B and return to Earth in it, abandoning the MOL.220px-titan-3c_mol-gemini-b-test_3

The Gemini B was virtually identical to the Gemini used by NASA, except for a hatch through the heat shield that allowed astronauts to move between it and the MOL.

The initial launch took place on Nov. 3, 1966 from Cape Canaveral. The MOL launched was a boilerplate mockup made from a Titan propellant tank, and the Gemini B was the prototype, and unmanned. The capsule returned to Earth safely, proving the modified heat shield, and is on display today at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum.

In June 1969, the project was cancelled. No manned and functioning flight was made. By the time of its cancellation, progress had outrun the program, and unmanned reconnaissance satellites had proved that they could do the job more cheaply than the MOL.

In all seventeen astronauts trained to fly MOL missions. One was Robert Lawrence, the first black astronaut, who died in training in 1967. (see 167. On the Brink of Glory) When the program was cancelled, all the astronauts who were under 35 years old were offered jobs at NASA. The seven who were eligible all accepted and became NASA Astronaut Group 7. All flew on the space shuttle.

185. The Flying Bedstead

300px-LLRV_2Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. For most of the followers of this blog, it is part of history. I saw it happen, on a grainy black and white TV in the lounge of a college dorm. (see 27. That Was My Childhood)

You can’t land on the moon by parachute, nor by wings. No air. The only choice the Apollo program had was to land tail first, by rockets, something that had been a science fiction staple for decades, but was nothing like easy to manage. (see yesterday’s post)

Designing a craft to do the work was within the limits of the technology of the day. Vertical landings on Earth had been successfully accomplished. Pilot control on Apollo was expedited by having the astronauts stand to fly the Lunar Lander; the problem with VTOL planes had been that the pilots were strapped into a seat that kept them facing the wrong way when they landed.

The craft could be built, the astronauts were the best test pilots America had to offer. But how do you train?

Simulators? Maybe. Resurrect Pogo or Vertijet? Perhaps. Build a new craft just to use as a trainer? Better. But how do you build a trainer to react as if it were in a 1/6 gee field while landing in on Earth? You can’t just make gravity go away – or can you.

The answer is almost, more-or-less, and good enough to do the job. The first iteration of the trainer was the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, nicknamed the flying bedstead. You may have seen it. Neil Armstrong ejected from one of them after the controls failed; the footage of the crash is both exciting and brief, which gets it a lot of air play in retrospective specials, especially on anniversaries like tomorrow.

If you see footage of the LLRV not crashing, or of the advanced version LLTV (Lunar Landing Training Vehicle), you can easily see what it is all about. The vehicle consists of an open framework of tubing with the pilot sitting upright in the front (in an ejection seat, thank goodness) with a batch of somewhat shrouded equipment balancing the rear. In the middle, attached vertically, pointing downward and clearly throwing flames, is a jet engine. The craft is uneasily hovering.

Note, I didn’t say hovering on its jet. That is what it looks like, but that is not what is happening. Not quite. When the jet is fired up at takeoff, the LLRV or LLTV simply sits there. The jet has 5/6 of the thrust needed to lift the craft. While hovering, the rest of the thrust is provided by a separate set of hydrogen peroxide thrusters which are controlled by the pilot. If the pilot were to simply turn off his thrusters, the LLTV would crash to the ground at the same speed it would crash to the moon.

The jet subtracts enough of the LLTV’s mass to make it react as if it were in a 1/6 gee gravity field, allowing the pilot to maneuver his craft as if he were coming in for a lunar landing. Armstrong made over fifty LLTV landings before he landed on the moon.

If you want to know more about this craft, there is a half hour special full of information, old footage, and interviews with retired LLRV pilot and an engineer from the project. Huell Howser is the host. If you live in California, and you watch PBS, you know Huell. He is an acquired taste that I have never quite been able to acquire, but sometimes what he covers makes up for his idiosyncrasies. This is one of those cases. The program is California’s Gold #13003 – LUNAR LANDING. Try your local PBS station or check with the Huell Howser Archives at Chapman University.

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.

166. Nonstop Before Lindberg

Nonstop over water is a big deal. In the early days of aviation, planes failed frequently, and forced landings were standard procedure. Landing in a cow pasture was problematical. Landing in the ocean would likely be fatal.

In 1909, Louis Bleriot flew nonstop (there wasn’t any other way to do it but nonstop) across the English Channel. He would certainly have set off a round of longer and longer first flights, but WW I got in the way.

After WW I, there was a surplus of newer, more sophisticated aircraft. Two British flyers, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown, along with several other competing teams, set out to cross the Atlantic nonstop, beginning their flights in Newfoundland. Hawker and Grieve took off first, crashed a thousand miles into the flight, and were picked up by a passing steamer. Raynham and Morgan tried an hour later, but crashed during takeoff.

Alcock and Brown left Newfoundland on June 14, 97 years ago today. Alcock, the pilot, had waited as long as he dared for better weather, but finally decided to chance the near gale force winds. The two aviators, in a single open cockpit, took off at 4:10 PM, barely clearing the trees at the end of the runway. They headed east toward Ireland, with the wind behind them to hurry them along.

Shortly after takeoff, Brown discovered that their wireless was not working. He crawled out of the cockpit onto the wing to get a look at the small propeller mounted under the fuselage which powered the radio. Three of four of the blades had sheered off. They would remain out of communication until their flight either succeeded or failed.

At 7 PM, the exhaust pipe on the starboard motor overheated, split, and burned away. This left the motor running erratically, but there was no way to fix it.

They were flying at 3000 feet; Brown was navigating by sextant. When they entered a fog bank. Alcock had to rise to 12,000 feet so they could see the stars again. About sunrise, they entered an even higher bank of fog. They could not tell left from right or up from down, but the instruments showed the plane listing and then entering a spin. They dropped down, blind, almost to the ocean itself. Fifty feet above the water they cleared the fog and clouds with wings vertical. Alcock pulled up just above the water.

For hours they flew in alternating clouds and clear air, until the storm turned the sky black in front of them. Then they entered snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Alcock tried unsuccessful to fly above the storm, but the only result was that a critical gauge, fixed to a strut outside the cockpit, iced over. Again Brown had to leave the cockpit to chip away the ice, but this time he had to remain, clinging to the cross wires, to repeat the process every time the gauge re-iced.

Eventually they had to drop down through the storm again to see the ocean below so they did not overfly their destination. At 8:15 AM, June 15th, they sighted the Irish coast.

Alcock and Brown were knighted for their efforts, and lionized in Britain.

In America, not so much. Eight years later, Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris, following the same route overwater as Alcock and Brown, and became famous throughout the world as the “first man to fly the Atlantic”.


These posts are necessarily short, so details get missed along the way. Like Bleriot before them, Alcock and Brown, and their competitors, were in pursuit of a monetary prize. This time it was for the first single plane to cross from North America to Britain in under 72 hours. The “single plane” rule was to avoid someone flying from Newfoundland to Iceland, jumping into a second, newly fueled and serviced plane, and completing the trip. Stops along the way were allowed, as long as the same plane was used.

A decade later, Lindbergh was also in a race with a bunch of other flyers to win a monetary prize for the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris. There was nothing in the prize about a solo flight. The other competitors were in larger planes, with crews. Lindbergh flew solo to save the weight of a second person, so he could carry more fuel.

Does this sound familiar? The X-prize, recently won by Burt Rutan’s Space Ship One, was modeled after these early aviation prizes. Even the moon landing was the result of competition, not for money, but for prestige and the military high ground.

If you want more information on early aviation feats, check out Famous First Flights That Changed History, by Lowell Thomas, junior and senior.