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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Thoughtful Courage or Fearful Safety? Thoughts inspired by ‘Safe Is Not An Option’ by Rand Simberg

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The international crew of Columbia’s final flight STS-107 [IMG: NASA]
Having recently read Safe Is Not An Option, I started out intending to write a review of the book but decided to expand that out to capture some thoughts on the subject at greater length.

Firstly I think its worth noting the book’s full title  –  Safe Is Not An Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space. So a pretty uncompromising introduction right there on the cover, but any serious discussion on this subject needs to confront the subject head on and challenge our preconceptions and Simberg certainly doesn’t dodge that challenge. So why the need for this seemingly iconoclastic viewpoint?
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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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Toward the Unknown: The North American X-15 – Part 1

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The X-15 ready to go under the wing of the NB-52 [IMG: NASA]
By any measure the North American X-15 was an amazing aircraft. By the end of the decade long, 199 flight programme the three aircraft had pushed airspeed and altitude records way beyond all previous marks. Many X-15 pilots qualified astronauts on their high altitude flights and the wealth of  operational knowledge that was gained continues to influence aerospace programmes to this day. 

Yet for all this, the X-15 is often overshadowed by NASA’s other activities during the 1960s and its legacy overlooked. It could never go as high or as fast as the capsules launched from the Cape, but the fact remains, at the time it was designed the X-15 looked like it would provide America’s first forays in human spaceflight and as Tom Wolfe points out in The Right Stuff, they would FLY their vehicle there and back.
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The SLS: A layman’s view

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The changing face of the SLS – will the rocket be as flexible as the 3D rendering? [IMG: NASA]
The Space Launch System. The World’s most powerful rocket, getting ready to blast humanity into deep space and on our long awaited journey to Mars (or should I say #JourneyToMarsTM). Star of so many CGI animations and NASA presentations that I’ve lost count. 

You’ve changed a bit since we first met – you used to look a lot more like the Saturn V, now you’ve shed the paint job and you look a lot more like a bunch of stuff from the Shuttle, but more of that later. See, the thing is I really, really want to see humanity go further into space and take a journey to Mars. I want to see a lander burrow under the ice and swim in the oceans of Europa, I want an incredibly advanced laboratory swooping through the plumes of Enceladus, I want a sub cruising the methane oceans of Titan – I guess I just want us to go places and do things. But SLS? I have my doubts.
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The Last Man on the Moon: review & thoughts

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I don’t go around living in the past for the most part, but every once in a while you let yourself go back in time…

Recently released feature-length documentary The Last Man on the Moon is based on the autobiography of Astronaut Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17 in 1972 and the last person to have walked on the lunar surface. The film includes interviews with astronauts Alan Bean, Charlie Duke, Tom Stafford, Dick Gordon and Jim Lovell plus key figures from Mission Control, Gene Kranz and Dr. Chris Kraft. Combining these with archive footage and CGI sequences, The Last Man on the Moon not only tells Cernan’s own story but the shows the broader achievements and impacts of NASA’s race to the Moon.
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