Extremely Sexy Spaceplanes

Spaceplane concept art. Lockheed Photo LN 5009

By Garrett O’Donoghue

It is hard to fall in love with rockets, they are just over-zealous pencils, but a spaceplane is something else. Garrett O’Donoghue leaves the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere in search of extremely sexy spaceplanes.

STAR Clipper: The Sexiest Spaceplane That Never Flew

Lockheed’s proposal for the USAF/ NASA ILRV project, STAR (Space Transport and Recovery) Clipper was a stage-and-a-half spaceplane derived from the USAF Flight Dynamics Laboratory’s LSC-8MX. Max Hunter, Lockheed’s chief designer – proposed a sleek spaceplane that would launch vertically, a V-shaped drop tank arranged along its leading-edge providing fuel for its internal engines at launch. The external tank would be jettisoned when the fuel was exhausted, and the Clipper would continue into orbit on internal fuel. 

In February 1969, NASA awarded Lockheed a Phase A study contract to develop the STAR Clipper for the Shuttle Program. In December that year, Lockheed unveiled their LS-112 proposal: a fully reusable spaceplane, launched from either a flyback booster or as part of a triamese arrangement. In Phase B, Lockheed partnered with Boeing, with the latter developing the booster vehicle. The Lockheed/Boeing submission wasn’t selected for further development, but NASA – concerned that a fully-reusable vehicle might not be technically feasible after all – funded continued development of the Star Clipper as an alternative concept, resulting in the L-200 design of 1971.

McDAC Alternate A: The Drawbridge Orbiter

In November 1969 McDonnell-Douglas proposed this novel design to meet the Air Forces’ requirement for a high cross-range capability for military shuttle missions. The Air Force wanted to achieve a polar orbit for satellite deployment, with launch and recovery from Vandenberg AFB, also on the Air Force’s wish list was the ability to launch the occasional snatch-and-grab of a Soviet satellite within a single orbit. The shuttle would have re-entered with folded wings during high-cross range military missions. With extended wings, the cross range would have been lower but the heat loads on the airframe would have been less extreme.

Douglas Astro: The Ass-To-Mouth Orbiter

In 1962 NASA funded several studies for a space station support vehicle, one of the study contracts was for a Reusable Ten Ton Orbital Carrier Vehicle or RTTOCV. A key requirement was that the vehicle would use off-the-shelf engine technology. Douglas proposed the Advanced Spacecraft Truck/Trainer/Transport Reusable Orbiter or ASTRO, a two-stage nose-to-tail vehicle, both stages being manned lifting body craft. Launched from a mobile gantry, after separation from the orbiter, the booster would make an unpowered landing downrange of the launch site while the orbiter continued into… well orbit. 

Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar: The Strangled Infant

The Dyna-Soar story really begins in 1936 when a thesis written by Eugen Sänger attracted the attention of the German Air Ministry, who saw military potential in his research. The Air Ministry funded a development team that, led by Sänger, proposed the Silber Vogel in 1942. The sled-launched Silber Vogel would be powered to an altitude of 145 km by rockets where it would gradually descend into the stratosphere, lift generated by its flat bottom would cause it to skip back to altitude extending its range. Using this boost-glide method, Sänger’s suborbital bomber would be able to launch from a site in Europe, deliver a 4000 kg bomb to the continental US and continue on to a landing site in the Pacific.

In 1952 fellow Ze Germans Walter Dornberger and Krafft Ehricke, now at Bell, proposed a vertical launch version of Sänger’s design that became known as BoMi. The proposal generated enough interest that by 1956 it had evolved into three separate programmes: a rocket bomber, a long-rang reconnaissance vehicle, and a hypersonic weapons research system.

In October 1957, the USAF Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) consolidated the programmes into the Weapon System 464L Project or Dyna-Soar.

Despite the heavy lifting done by Bell, Boeing was awarded the final contract for the X-20 in 1959 from a group of nine competing companies. Their design outlined in 1960 had a low-wing delta shape, with winglets providing control and directional stability. The high cost of the programme, coupled with an absence of a clear goal on the part of the Air Force led to its cancellation in 1963 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Had it not been cancelled, Dyna-Soar would have begun test flights from Cape Canaveral in 1964 with an orbital launch in 1965. Instead, the astronaut group was disbanded, the prototype and mockup were scrapped, along with the tooling for the initial production line.

Bell’s Orient Express

Bell proposed this sleek boost-glide transport in 1960. Launched from a carrier vehicle, the glider could achieve a suborbital trajectory resulting in a brief spaceflight. Up to thirty passengers could be transported from Los Angeles to Paris in a little over an hour, enjoying weightlessness along the way.

The Goodyear METEOR

In 1954 Goodyear Aerospace revealed their design for a fully reusable spacecraft and launch system. The METEOR or Manned Earth-satellite Terminal with Earth Orbital Rocket service vehicle proposed by Darrell Romick consisted of three nested reusable spaceplanes, that could be converted to conventional aircraft after landing by attaching turbojet pods and flown on their own power back to the launch site. Once proven, Romick planned to use the third stages of the METEOR as the building blocks for a rather grand space station that would accommodate 20,000 people, with hotels, stores, a movie theatre, an auditorium and churches so the residents could experience “comfortable, satisfying, convenient living conditions.”

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Bono’s Mars Glider

In 1960, Boeing funded a study led by Philip Bono to examine if their 1957 design for a station support vehicle – a common ancestor of the X-20 Dyna-Soar – could be modified for interplanetary missions. Bono enlarged the vehicle and made it an integral part of a single-launch manned Mars mission. While the study proved feasible, there are number of issues that would have doomed the mission had it proceeded.

  • Arriving at Mars, the glider separated from a living module where the astronauts had spent the previous 259 days and headed for the surface. The living module would brake into Martian orbit on autopilot. The crew had no way to abort their landing if less than ideal conditions presented themselves below.
  • The glider itself was designed to fly in an assumptive Martian atmosphere that was 8% of that on Earth. As revealed by Mariner IV, the true composition of Mars atmosphere is closer to 1%. In other words: the glider would not have been able to generate lift in the thinner Martian atmosphere, the 42 meter drag chute provided to slow it to maneuvering speed was far too small and the glider would still be supersonic 2000 feet from surface, where Bono expected the seventy-ton spaceplane to fire retrorockets that would slow it to a gentle hover down to the surface.
  • Having had 459 todays to enjoy all that Mars has to offer, on departure day the crew would angle the glider 15 degrees from vertical and lift-off using the aft portion of the glider as a launch pad. Again, in the thinner atmosphere its unlikely the glider would have been able to generate enough lift to attain orbit before its fuel was exhausted.
  • In orbit, the glider would dock with the living habitat for the return journey to Earth where the crew would attempt their second landing after being away from home for 980 days.

The HL-10: The Six Million Dollar Man’s Ride

NASA proposed upscaled versions of the HL-10 and M2-F2 as station support vehicles in 1964. When flight testing of the three original heavyweight lifting body designs began in 1966, the other being the X-24A, the Northrop built HL-10 was judged to be the best handling. NASA considered launching a space-rated version of the HL-10 into orbit in the early seventies. The vehicle would have been taken into orbit by a Saturn V, occupying the lunar module’s housing. The astronaut would spacewalk to the HL-10 for a pre-entry check of its systems. In the first of two planned flights, the pilot would return to the Apollo CSM and the HL-10 would re-enter uncrewed. If the re-entry was successful, a manned flight would be attempted. The plan was cancelled on cost grounds. The HL-10 made its last test flight in July 1970.

TRW JANUS: The most Thunderbirdiest Spaceplane ever!

Blunt Blunt lifting bodies handle poorly at low speed and are difficult to land. Winged vehicles will have better handling and can be designed to have good landing qualities, but re-entry poses significant design challenges. What better way to simplify the design process for everyone by making everything doubly complicated? That’s exactly what TRW did in the early sixties with the JANUS, which they were granted a patent for in 1966. JANUS was a staged re-entry vehicle. The lower part of the vehicle was a blunt lifting body pod. The upper part of the vehicle was a 21-foot-long delta winged jet. Mated, the jet sealed the open top of the pod, creating a pressurized cabin. During launch and re-entry, the crew would sit on couches in the pod under the jet fuselage. During the re-entry phase, at about 50,000 feet and slowed to subsonic speed the crew couches would be lifted on motors in the jet cockpit. Hatches in the floor would close beneath astronauts’ feet, sealing the fuselage. Explosive bolts would release the latches connecting the craft, and pneumatic rods would separate the stages. As the pod fell away, the jet’s engines would ignite for a controlled landing at a convenient airfield. The reusable pod would automatically deploy parachutes and recover at sea.

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Lockheed Space Taxi: Splash Mountain to Orbit

Spaceplane concept art. Lockheed Photo LN 5009

Lockheed proposed this reusable three-stage launch system in 1963. The first stage would launch from a steam-powered water sled. After separation at altitude the second stages’ engines would fire, taking it to a suborbital trajectory where the third Dyna-Soar style “taxi” would deploy, taking crew and cargo into space.

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