Tag Archives: X-craft

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.