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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
As NASA came to grips with the enormity of the task handed to them by President Kennedy in his May 1961 congressional address, the list of hurdles standing between America and a manned moon landing was long and formidable. Although NASA’s senior management felt confident that the task could be accomplished before the end of the decade, the finer details of how this would be achieved were far less certain.
Much of the initial focus of Project Apollo fell on the fundamental question of which mission mode should be employed. Some favoured Direct Ascent – launching one huge spaceship directly to the Moon where it would land before returning to the Earth. Others argued Earth Orbit Rendezvous was far more achievable given the limitations of American rocketry at the time. A third group suggested Lunar Orbit Rendezvous may hold significant advantages, but all three approaches had one thing in common – they would involve the controlled landing of a spaceship subject to the Moon’s reduced gravity and lack of atmosphere. Continue reading →
Since the earliest days of the space age there has been something inherently attractive in the idea of a spacecraft that could glide back after its mission and land like an aeroplane. From Sanger’s Silbervogel onwards, a succession of spaceplanes sporting various shapes and configurations have flowed from the minds of aerospace designers.
Sierra Nevada Corporation recently announced that it is preparing its Dream Chaser spaceplane for a new round of flight tests. If Dream Chaser makes it into space, it will mark the culmination of a long evolution for a wingless ‘lifting body’ shape going back over 50 years and involving both Cold War superpowers…
Few spacecraft are quite so instantly recognisable as the Shuttle Orbiter. Even in retirement the surviving craft remain iconic, resplendent in their black & white thermal tiles and boasting their trademark double-delta wing.
But the story of how the Orbiter got its familiar shape and the Space Transport System reached it’s eventual configuration is an interesting one reflecting the requirements of the US Air Force more than the needs of NASA. So why did the Air Force have such a big hand in the design and what were their plans for the Shuttle? The story starts in the Apollo era of the late 1960’s. Continue reading →