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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The Sunnyvale Shuttle: Lockheed’s STAR Clipper

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The Lockheed/Boeing Phase B proposal [IMG: NASA/LMSC]
With hindsight, it is now popular to view the Space Shuttle as a flawed concept, born out of political compromise and budget constraints. Never able to maintain anything like the original projected flight rates, hugely expensive and time consuming to maintain, the shuttle can seem like something of a developmental dead end or, as some have claimed, proof that reusability can never be economically viable. 

As we enter an era where both SpaceX and Blue Origin aim to prove that Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing rockets can offer a sustainable route to Earth orbit and beyond, it’s interesting to look back at a reusable spaceplane concept that predated NASA’s shuttle studies and could, had things been different, have ended up being America’s national launch system from the 1970s onwards. But this is also the story of the man behind the concept, Max Hunter, a visionary who – along with contemporaries such as Philip Bono (see more on Bono’s SSTO designs) – helped define the desirability of reusable launch vehicles at a time when the world was still focused on the short-term spectaculars of Apollo’s race to the Moon.
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The final steps and legacy: The North American X-15 – Part 3

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The proposed Delta-Wing conversion was just one of many X-15 follow-on projects discussed during the programme [IMG: NASA]
When NASA pilot Bill Dana brought the X-15 to a halt on Rogers dry lake on October 24th 1968, it marked the end of the research plane’s flying career. At the time there were hopes that a final 200th flight could be made before the end of the year, but following a number of cancellations and aborts it wasn’t to be.

The X-15 programme drew to a close just as the world’s attention turned to the Moon with Apollo 8’s successful lunar orbital flight and the push towards a landing during 1969 to meet Kennedy’s goal.
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Once around the Moon: The Soviet circumlunar race

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The final leg of the race to the Moon as visualised by TIME magazine

Whilst the complexities and expense of a lunar landing mission always looked difficult for the Soviet space programme to achieve before the end of the 1960’s, the possibility of a simpler circumlunar flight certainly seemed within reach. Unfortunately one of the fundamental truths of the Soviet programme was that the so called Space Race was in reality always as much an internal  battle for influence and funding between the competing design bureaus as it ever was a clash between superpowers.

But in spite of missed opportunities, tragedies and political indecision this was a race that nearly went right down to the wire.
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Dream Chaser DNA: A story of spaceplane evolution

The SNC Dream Chaser Flight Test Article
The SNC Dream Chaser Flight Test Article [IMG: Wikipedia CC licence]
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…

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Blue Shuttle – How the Air Force influenced the STS design process

Enterprise nestling amongst the hills at Vandenberg AFB [IMG: Air Force/TSGT James R. Pearson]
Enterprise nestling amongst the hills at Vandenberg AFB [IMG: Air Force/TSGT James R. Pearson]
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.
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Death of the Dyna-Soar

Dyna-Soar on an orbital mission (Img: USAF)
Dyna-Soar on an orbital mission (Img: USAF)

Hindsight, as the saying goes, is a wonderful thing. From a distance of half a century it’s tempting to say that the United States Air Force’s decision to name their revolutionary space plane Dyna-Soar showed more than a touch of hubris. It’s a name with a certain amount of baggage, a hint of ponderous progress and a tendency towards, well let’s face it, extinction.

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