Tag Archives: X-craft

343. Black Shuttles

Atlantis, first launch, DOD mission.

Regular readers will notice that these posts are coming later in the day.

During the planning stage of the Space Shuttle, some changes were called for by the National Reconnaissance Office. That is an organization which, at that time, was not acknowledged to exist, but which is the home of sophisticated space hardware and a big budget. Specifically, NRO wanted the cargo bay on the shuttles to be bigger, presumably to accommodate their oversized spy satellites. They got their way, and the money they provided helped keep the struggling shuttle program afloat during the hard early days.

We’ve been looking at the Air Force in space this week and NRO isn’t the Air Force — quite. However, the head of NRO has traditionally been an undersecretary or Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. So, close enough.

It would not be unreasonable to think of the Air Force as an organization run by pilots and ex-pilots. MISS was a program designed to put men into space; so were the Dyna-soar and the MOL. But none of them ever succeeded in putting Air Force astronauts into space.

During this period of public failure, there were secret successes in the form of more and more military satellites. One of the earliest class of mission was reconnaissance, and the Air Force/NRO success with unmanned satellites was the primary reason MOL was abandoned. Through the sixties and into the seventies, these satellites used sophisticated film cameras, and their findings came back to earth via film canisters dropped from satellites and snagged out of the air by military aircraft. After digital imaging came to maturity, that was no longer necessary.

Sidebar.      Just how successful those satellites were, and how rich the NRO is, became embarrassingly obvious in 2012. The NRO gave NASA two Hubble-quality space telescopes that they had ordered, but weren’t using. One of these is slated to become the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, due for launch in 2024.

At the same time that the Air Force, through NRO, arranged to have the shuttle’s cargo bay expanded, it began to build a shuttle launching facility at Vandenberg Air Base in California. To understand what this means requires knowledge that every space nerd had in the sixties, but which is never talked about these days.

Why do we launch space missions from Florida? Because it is the only place in the US which is both far south and on the eastern seaboard. Rockets are typically launched as close the the equator as practical so that the rotation of the Earth is added to the rocket’s speed — something vitally important when crude, early craft were being launched. They are launched from the eastern seaboard to provide thousands of miles of open ocean for first stages — or fiery, falling failures — to land in.

Vandenberg is situated on the western edge of the nation, ideally located for launching rockets north or south into polar orbit — that orange-peel path spy satellites need. Advanced Titans and Atlases launch from there as needed, without fanfare. But not with complete secrecy. It is a California cliché for a UFO scare to be debunked as “just another night launch from Vandenberg”.

The Johnson Space Center is in Huston because Texan LBJ was President when it was built. Orbital physics had nothing to do with it.

No shuttle was ever launched from Vandenberg. Shortly after the second classified Department of Defense shuttle mission, the Challenger was lost. Important secret launches were delayed by the hearings that followed.

The relationship between NASA and the Air Force had never been a happy one, and the Air Force shifted as quickly as possible back to its own resources. They used the shuttle to take up satellites too large to be launched by other means, and otherwise returned to using their own missiles, typically out of Vandenberg.

The Luke Skywalker picture of Air Force pilots in their space fighters has never come about. The closest to that idea is the robot X-37b, which we will look at in some future post.


The Smithsonian Air & Space magazine carried an article in 2009 on the eleven black shuttle missions. Since most details are still classified, the article is frustrating, but will provide about as much as you will find anywhere outside of alien-influence websites.

342. Dyna-soar

Regular readers will notice that posts are now coming later in the day.

MISS, Man in Space Soonest, was a USAF project to put a man into a capsule and boost him into space on top of a converted ICBM. It was cancelled, resurrected, and passed on to the new organization NASA, where it became Project Mercury.

Times were tense. The Soviets had launched a satellite into orbit in 1957, beating America into space by a few months. They added to the humiliation by beating the US again in 1961, this time with a man in space. Worse than either accomplishment, was they booster that was used. It was far more powerful than anything America had in service, or in development. A booster that powerful presented all kinds of doomsday scenarios.

Eisenhower had plenty of problems at the time. He was using U-2 spy planes to illegally overfly the Soviet Union, and recognized that it was only a matter of time before that blew up in his face — which it did in 1960 when one of the U-2s was shot down while spying. MISS being transferred to NASA made it a civilian project, and less objectionable. The same logic led the Navy originated Project Vanguard to be passed on to NASA, and also to the use of underpowered rockets to launch it because they were not military hardware.

Sputnik and the Soviet manned missions were on top of a military booster, rendering that concern moot.

NASA went on to success in manned space flight, but in the fifties and early sixties, that was not a foregone conclusion. The Air Force moved on to the Dyna-soar.

Project Dyna-soar (from the phrase dynamic soaring) had begun in 1957, when it was to be the next step after MISS. It was based on the theories of Eugen Sänger, who had a suborbital bomber on the drawing board for the Germans during WWII.

The basic idea was to send a winged vehicle above the atmosphere on top of a rocket, whether in a sub-orbital flight or returning from orbital flight. That craft would skip repeatedly off the upper atmosphere on returning, dissipating the heat of reentry, and ultimately land as a glider.

This sounds a lot like the Space Shuttle, but there are two main differences. STS was designed as a single stage to orbit vehicle, and it dissipated heat by shock waves while being protected by insulated tiles, much like the Mercury through Apollo missions had used shock waves off ablative heat shields. Dyna-soar was designed to ride into orbit on top of a military rocket and to lose its heat by skipping — that is, by dipping into the atmosphere, then bouncing back into space to radiate away the heat it had built up, followed by repeat, repeat, repeat, until cool enough to finally land as a glider.

That would make for a long, hard, bumpy ride. If you are simply thinking of reentry, it would be a unnecessarily tough way to go. To understand why the skip-glide method was so inviting, you have to project yourself back to dawn of the 1960s when rockets were small and space exploration was new. With skip-glide, a relatively small and not particularly powerful rocket could send the Dyna-soar anywhere on Earth.

When Alan Shepard made his sub-orbital flight, he traveled 116 miles above the Earth but landed only about 300 miles downrange. With that initial altitude, Dyna-soar could probably have circled the Earth before landing.

Dyna-soar was developed as a reconnaissance and bombing vehicle. It was, after all, an Air Force project.

Had it gone to completion, the Dyna-soar (also called the X-20 later in its development) would have been the most sophisticated space craft of its era. Unfortunately, money was scarce, and while in orbit, the Gemini could do anything the Dyna-soar could do.

Gemini was a monumentally successful project (see Gemini) that sucked up all of America’s attention. In December of 1963, the Dyna-soar project was cancelled.

Again, the Air Force had lost out to its civilian counterpart. It didn’t give up. The next time around, the Air Force co-opted the Gemini. That third chapter in the Air Force’s bid for space was told here last November as The Space Station That Never Was. We’ll cover the rest of the story – so far –  tomorrow.

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.

164. Flight into Space

The golden age of (fill in item of your choice) is thirteen.

I first read that phrase in reference to science fiction, but it works for quite an array of things. Certainly the music of our youth is the music we will always prefer, although that may come to us a couple of years after thirteen. It certainly works for automobiles and aircraft.

For me that golden age revolves around the F-104 and the X-15.


The entire focus of Edwards AFB, including most of the X-craft, was to fly higher and faster. The higher part caused problems with loss of control as the atmosphere thinned. The faster part brought about heating problems from atmospheric friction. Both lines of research culminated in the X-15.

The X-15 was first contracted in 1954. Early in its development, a follow-up aircraft to be called X-15B was considered. It was to be launched atop a Navaho missile in order to reach into space. NASA dropped the idea in favor of the Mercury program. The Air Force followed up with the proposed X-20, but that too was cancelled after Mercury became successful. Actual flight into orbit by a winged craft would not occur until the first Space Shuttle launch.

The first X-15 flight took place in 1959 and it was still flying nine years later, less than a year before the first moon landing. Like the earlier X-planes, the X-15 was dropped from a larger plane, in this case a converted B-52 bomber. Rather like a two stage rocket, this piggybacking allowed the X-15 a head start. The first 8.5 miles of altitude and 500 mph of speed came out the the B-52’s fuel tank, leaving the X-15’s fuel supply intact for the final push.

During that near decade, there were almost 200 flights. Thirteen of those flights went above 50 miles. The maximum speed reached in level flight was 4,520 mph.

The Air Force awards astronaut wings for flights above 50 miles – international rules do not agree. Two of those thirteen flights went above 100 kilometers. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale counts 100 kilometers as the edge of space, making Joseph Walker officially the thirteenth man in space. (Also the fourteenth.) One of those who gained Air Force astronauts wings was Joe Engle who later flew the Space Shuttle. Neil Armstrong flew the X-15 seven times, but never above fifty miles. He had to settle for a consolation prize on July 20, 1969 when he landed on the moon.

To successfully fly at such altitudes requires a series of small rocket motors strategically placed around the spacecraft to control attitude when the rudder, elevator, and ailerons have nothing to work against.

On high speed flights by the rebuilt X-15A-2, an ablative coating was sprayed onto the surface of the aircraft to protect it from overheating due to atmospheric friction, an issue that the SR-71 and the Space Shuttle would also have to face.

For my generation, the X-15 was the ultimate, and it looked the part. It’s pilots flew to the edge of space; they were not blown there in a capsule on top of a converted ICBM. Mercury and Gemini were wonderful. I followed them religiously. But the X-20, proposed descendant of the X-15, riding on top of a Titan missile would have done it with more class. And it would have landed under the pilot’s control, not on the end of a parachute in the middle of the ocean.

Scott Crossfield, the X-15’s designer and first pilot said it was one of the few aircraft that caused grown men to cry upon its retirement.