Joe Walker: NASA’s Forgotten Spaceman

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Joe Walker and the X-15 [IMG: NASA]

On August 22nd 1963 high above Smith Ranch Dry Lake in Nevada, NASA pilot Joe Walker dropped away from the NB-52 carrier aircraft in X-15 number 3. In the seconds that followed he successfully ignited the research plane’s powerful XLR-99 rocket engine and pulled back on the side-stick, aiming for the darker skies above. Three previous attempt to get this flight – the 91st of the programme – launched had been scrubbed for various reasons, but today everything had worked fine and the X-15 soon streaked upwards leaving the NB-52 and chase planes in its wake.
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Flying Without Wings: The Martin SV-5/X-24 Lifting Bodies

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The Martin Marietta X-24A Lifting Body [IMG: NASA]

With the exception of the Space Shuttle, the high altitude flights of the X-15 and SpaceshipOne, all other human spaceflights have used capsules for reentry followed by descent under parachute. The capsule approach was originally adopted as the quickest way to get humans into space, but even during the 1950s other approaches were being considered – designs that would allow returning spacecraft a greater deal of control during reentry and more accurate landings than the first generation capsules could offer. 

One line of thought centred around a vehicle that could generate lift via the shape of its body alone, a ‘lifting body’, and one of the most effective of the configurations that followed was the Martin SV-5/X-24.
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SpaceX: To reusability…and beyond?

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Liftoff for Falcon 9 [IMG: SpaceX]

SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch, possibly as early as March 29th, will mark a major milestone for the company. Carrying the Luxembourg owned SES-10 communications satellite, it will be the first to reuse – and hopefully recover for a second time – a previously flown Falcon 9 core.

Since the first successful Falcon 9 landing on December 21st 2015, SpaceX have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to recover their first stages to both downrange droneship and Return To Launch Site pad landings. But while there can be no doubting how technically impressive this capability is, it will ultimately count for nothing unless they can refurbish and re-fly the recovered cores repeatedly, amortising their development costs and sustaining reduced launch costs for their customers.

SpaceX had originally hoped that this flight would take place in 2016, but that was before the launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 carrying the AMOS-6 satellite during a static-fire test on September 1st, 2016. Since Falcon’s return to flight in January this year, the company are pushing hard to regain lost ground across a number of fronts.
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Sentinel2Went! – A long night in Darmstadt

In a break from my usual posts I offer some thoughts on the launch event for Sentinel-2B held at the European Space Agency’s operations centre (ESOC) on the 6-7th March. All opinions expressed here are my own and I fully appreciate they may not shared by all readers (disclaimer over!)

As I write this, i’m sitting in a hotel room in Darmstadt, Germany after attending the ESA launch event for Sentinel-2B last night (and early this morning!)
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Cluster’s Last Stand: The Saturn I/1B

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A Chrysler advert highlighting their involvement with the Saturn programme [IMG: Chrysler Corporation]

Few sights could be more synonymous with the space age optimism of the 1960s than the mighty Saturn V. Built to take Americans to the Moon at the culmination of a politically fuelled space race, it also represented the ultimate expression of von Braun’s long held desire to use rocketry to reach other worlds. But while the Saturn V is deservedly honoured for its historic role, much of the work to make this success possible was carried out during the development of its smaller, less well remembered predecessor – the Saturn I.

Often consigned to the footnotes of space history the Saturn I story began well before Apollo, the programme that provided its defining role. Saturn I’s early development spans the military power struggles of the pre-NASA age and indeed its development helped bring key capabilities to the nascent space agency that remain important and controversial to this day. Although understandably overshadowed by the mighty Saturn V, for a while it looked like the Saturn I and subsequent variants might become among the most important workhorses of America’s expansion into space, a flexible and ubiquitous launcher with a life way beyond the lunar landings. Unfortunately, as with so many of the ambitious plans of the 1960s, the Saturn I never fully realised this potential.
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Atlas & BOMI: Weapons for a new frontier

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An Original Bell Aircraft model of the 1954-55 era MX-2276 BOMI [IMG: Used courtesy of Fantastic Plastic]
At the dawn of the space age, there appeared to be two viable routes to spaceflight, each with their roots firmly in German wartime research. On one hand there was the ballistic missile and on the other, the winged spaceplane.

The famed Peenemünde group led by von Braun and working for the German Army had created the world’s first practical ballistic missile, the A4, but by the latter years of the war had also begun to look at extending the missile’s range through the addition of wings. Independently of the Peenemünde group, Austrian scientist Eugene Sänger and his mathematician partner Irene Bredt were working on concepts for a rocket boosted Antipodal bomber for the German Air Ministry.

As the two global superpowers emerged in the immediate aftermath of World War II, these aerodynamic and ballistic concepts as well as the key protagonists behind their creation became the subject of huge military interest on both sides of the Iron Curtain. While the initial desire for exoatmospheric vehicles was based squarely around a requirement for long range weapons systems, the vehicles and techniques that resulted from these initial development programmes helped lay the groundwork for the space launch systems of the future.

Two contemporary advanced weapons projects carried out for the United States Air Force during the 1950s, namely BOMI and Atlas, illustrate these differing approaches well but endured very different fortunes.
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Apollo 8: The (second) greatest Christmas story ever told

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Frank Borman leads the crew of Apollo 8 to the transfer van on December 21st 1968 [IMG: NASA]

Sometimes it can be easy to get so immersed in the detail of spaceflight, the documentation, the politics and the technical minutiae, that we lose sight of the very real emotional connection that our achievements can have.

Occasionally when things come together just right, for a brief moment we can all pull together and feel a collective human wonder at events we see unfolding. I suspect many of us have our own ‘special mission’, indeed one of the great pleasures of meeting fellow space enthusiasts is to swap stories of these pivotal moments, the wonder they gave us and the lasting glow that keeps us wanting to learn more. Increasingly these may be missions we only learn about decades after their completion – we come new to these experiences, yet they can affect us just as they affected the generation that witnessed them first-hand.

For me there will always be a special place in my heart for Apollo 8.
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