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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Launch. Land. Repeat: A history of the VTVL Rocket – Part 3

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“I know how to get the U.S. permanently into space. Write me a check for a billion dollars, give me a letter of credit for a second billion I probably won’t have to spend, and get out of the way. I’ll take the money and vanish into the Mojave desert, China Lake for preference, Edwards Air Force Base if I must; and in about four years I’ll have a Single Stage to Orbit savable as well as recoverable and reusable spacecraft capable of putting about ten thousand pounds into orbit at costs of about five times the cost of the fuel the flight takes.”

This quote from and sci-fi author and aerospace industry veteran Jerry Pournelle dates to the early days of what would later become the DC-X. Pournelle was one of many space enthusiasts actively lobbying for a small SSTO project with minimal organisational oversight. As seen in Part 2, the DC-X project found it’s ‘Skunk Works’ home in the Strategic Defence Initiative Organisation (SDIO), but Pournelle’s words turned out to be prophetic – they would just take a while to happen and the innovators behind these projects would be able to write their own billion dollar cheques…
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Taking Star Wars to the Stars: A history of the VTVL Rocket – Part 2

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Part 1: Straight back down to Earth told the story of VTVL Rocket pioneers during the 1960s. In this second part of the story, a new set of circumstances set the stage for the reemergence of VTVL Rocket technology.


A new era of enthusiasm for space took hold under the Reagan Administration during the 1980s. It wasn’t born from a desire to explore new worlds or follow Kennedy’s Apollo era rhetoric, rather the new conservative agenda in America saw space as providing an new frontier for commercial pursuits…
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Straight back down to Earth: A history of the Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing Rocket – Part 1

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A vision of our VTVL rocket travel future as seen by Philip Bono during the 1960s [IMG: Philip Bono Collection via SDASM Archives]
The recent rise of commercial rocketry funded by mega-rich technology entrepreneurs holds the promise of finally reducing the cost of placing payloads into orbit, partly through the generation of greater competition in the marketplace and application of more agile business models and project management, but also because we have seen the timely reemergence of the reusable rocket.

Reusability, if it can be mastered, will be fundamental to increasing mankind’s access to space and allowing the construction of larger commercial infrastructures beyond Earth, but such vehicles are not a new idea…
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The X-33: Nothing ventured, nothing gained

A rendering showing the X-33 in flight - as close as it ever got [Img: NASA]
A rendering showing the X-33 in flight – as close as it ever got [Img: NASA]
Sometimes it feels like there have been so many false starts, so many cancelled projects or ‘paper planes’ over the last 60 years that you could almost pile them up and walk past the Kármán line. But few have got quite so far and failed quite so frustratingly as the X-33.

In the latter years of the last millennium, it seemed like the X-33, or it’s full size follow-on the VentureStar, were everywhere. Visually synonymous with NASA’s next steps in space, the great new hope for cheap reliable access to space appeared in all it’s CGI glory in every pop-science magazine, every book on space travel, every Discovery Channel documentary.

The X-33 flight article was approaching 90% complete and the launch facilities were ready when the project ground to a halt in 2001 with NASA announcing there would be no further funding from it’s side.
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