An Aerospace Roadtrip

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NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft N911NA on display in Palmdale [IMG: Chris Petty]
Recently I returned from a trip to California. While this was a family vacation, it did give me the chance to visit some fantastic space and aviation related attractions reflecting the state’s rich aerospace heritage. Here’s a quick roundup of what I saw…
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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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Riding the Bull: The North American X-15 – Part 2

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Mike Adams poses with X-15-1 post flight [IMG: NASA]
“Beware of the bull. He will carry you safely anywhere that you have to go and protect you from any enemies. He is awesome in battle. However, if you lose control of him or fall off, he will kill you as quickly as he would kill your enemy” 
from At the Edge of Space – Milton O. Thompson

On 8th June 1959, Scott Crossfield dropped away from beneath the wing of the B-52 carrier aircraft in X-15-1 and made a relatively uneventful glide back down to Rogers Dry Lake. During the brief flight, the sole planned glide flight of the entire programme, Crossfield allowed himself an aileron roll, all the better to check the new aircraft’s handling. Unfortunately his first landing was far less enjoyable with the X-15 bucking wildly as he struggled to put it down on the lake. The source of the control problems was soon isolated and fixed and the X-15 moved forward on its mission to unlock the secrets of high-speed, high-altitude flight.
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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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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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Before Mercury – Planned US Manned projects pre-1960

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Freedom 7 takes to the skies [img: NASA]
May 5th 1961. As Alan Shepard soared into the Florida sky on a 15 minute sub-orbital flight, he flew into history, becoming America’s first spaceman. Freedom 7, as Shepard had christened his ship, was the opening manned flight of Project Mercury, NASA’s first foray into space.

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