During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Russia were locked in a fierce competition for the ultimate high ground of space. The Space Race was thus an international contest that resulted in amazing advances in just a few years. Ballistic missiles allowed this to happen. Let us take a quick look at how these events unfolded, before examining several ballistic spaceplane ideas.
On October 4, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. This sent shock waves around the world, and the United States was caught off guard. How could a communist backwater such as Russia have gotten ahead of the West?
Following World War II, German rocket scientists and V-2 rockets were exported to both the United States and the Soviet Union. Neither side had anything nearly as advanced, and so German rocket technology was highly prized. The V-2 rocket became, in effect, the starting line for both sides in the coming Space Race. Benefited by communist secrecy, Russia concentrated on rocket designs able to lift its heavier, less-developed nuclear bombs. The United States, by contrast, conducted its V-2 research program in a relatively open manner. Its own nuclear bombs weighed less than the Russian versions, and as a result there was less of an impetus to develop more powerful rockets. The curious result was that Russia got a step ahead of America in rocketry, because it was a step behind in bomb-making. A more powerful space launcher was the result. With V-2 as the starting line, the Soviet "space shot" of Sputnik became the starting gun, and the Space Race was off and running. Within 4 months, the United States put together a tiny scientific satellite,
M.A. Bentley, Spaceplanes: From Airport to Spaceport, 83
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Explorer 1, placed it atop a Jupiter-C ballistic missile, and launched it on January 31, 1958. The American satellite (Fig. 6.1) immediately proved its worth, discovering the now-famous Van Allen radiation belts girdling the Earth.1
The next step was putting humans in Space. The X-15 research aircraft began flying in 1959, but it was never intended to reach orbital velocity. Developing an airplane such as the X-15 into a full-fledged spaceplane would take years, possibly decades. Competition to be the first with a person in space was intense. Again, the quickest and easiest way of achieving this was to put someone on a missile and launch that person ballistically. The projectiles would now be people.
Events were happening quickly now, and the only way for either side to remain in the competition was to rely on ballistic missiles. In 1961, two Russians and two Americans were launched into space. The Soviet Union still had the advantage in rockets, and so it was able to launch its cosmonauts directly into Earth orbit. On the
American side, the new Atlas missile was not quite ready; so the less powerful Redstone was used for the first two manned flights of Project Mercury.
Then President John F. Kennedy upped the ante. Just weeks after Shepard's suborbital flight, he made a speech committing America to the goal of landing humans on the Moon by decade's end. The United States would race Russia all the way to the Moon, and do it within 9 years. What happened next, in rapid succession, was a series of space "firsts."
After the first satellite (1957, USSR) and first human in space (1961, USSR), there followed the first double spaceflight (1962, USSR), the first woman in space (1963, USSR), the first three-man crew in space (1964, USSR), the first computer in space (1965, USA), the first spacewalk (1965, USSR), the first change-of-orbit (1965, USA), the first space rendezvous (1965, USA), the first space docking (1966, USA), the first manned Moon shot (1968, USA), and the first manned Lunar landing (1969, USA). This was followed by the first space station (1971, USSR), the first Moon car (1971, USA), and finally, the first Russian-American joint mission (1975).2 Twenty years to the day after Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first spaceman, on April 12, 1981, the United States launched the Space Shuttle (Fig. 6.2) , the world's first reusable orbital spacecraft. This rapid progress was made possible by Cold War ballistic missile technology, which grew directly out of the German V-2 program of World War II.
Fig. 6.3 Technical drawing of the Soviet BOR-4 atop its booster rocket, showing the basic launch architecture for Dyna-Soar and other small ballistic spaceplanes (courtesy http://www.buran-energia.com)
The history of manned, as well as unmanned, spaceflight owes nearly everything to ballistic missile technology. And yet, humans were entering suborbital space as early as 1962 in the X-15 spaceplane. And there were other spaceplanes under development as well. The continued and sustained development of these early spaceplanes might well have resulted in a completely different history of manned spaceflight.
In this chapter, we will look at several ballistic spaceplane designs, in which vertical rockets or rocket engines would lob winged vehicles or lifting bodies into space (Fig. 6.3). We will look at the inspirations, the objectives, the designs, and ultimately, the reasons that none of them ever flew. One notable exception, of course, is the most successful spaceplane ever designed, the Space Shuttle. We will look at its own successes and failures in the next chapter.
The story begins at around the same time as the beginnings of the joint NASA/ Department of Defense X-15 research program. The time was the late 1950s. The project was called Dyna-Soar, short for Dynamic Soarer, and designated the X-20 (Fig. 6.4) . Inspired by the original plans of Eugen Sänger and his antipodal bomber, Dyna-Soar was to be a one-person orbital spaceplane capable
of dropping a bomb on, or conducting reconnaissance over, almost any spot on Earth. It was to be launched by a ballistic missile, returning to Earth as a hypersonic glider, much as the Space Shuttle does today. Unlike the Space Shuttle, Dyna-Soar was to have a relatively compact design, and would balance atop its missile as an eagle on its perch. The launch vehicle was to have been a Titan III missile, then under development for both Dyna-Soar and the US Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory. The idea was to launch it vertically - a method known to work very well - and fly the single-person reconnaissance vehicle back like an airplane, to be launched again another day. There was disagreement about whether to use Dyna-Soar as a spyplane or as an orbital bomber, or both. At various stages of its development, it was touted as the ideal vehicle for each concept. But it never flew. Some preliminary hardware was produced, but stacked up against the two-man Gemini program, its capabilities seemed inadequate, and so the plug was pulled, and Dyna-Soar was canceled on December 10, 1963.3
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