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The First Reusable Spaceship

Thirty-seven years ago this month, the Space Shuttle Columbia completed the second orbital space mission of the Space Shuttle Program. Designated STS-2, the mission marked the first reuse of a space vehicle for manned orbital flight.

America’s early manned spacecraft – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – were single-flight vehicles. That is, a new spacecraft was required for each space mission. This was appropriate for meeting the aims of the early space program which concentrated on getting America to the moon before the end of the 1960’s.

The concept of space vehicle reusability came into vogue with the introduction of the Space Transportation System (STS). The original goal of the STS was to provide frequent and routine access to space via a fleet of Space Shuttle vehicles. For the STS to achieve economic viability, this meant flying a Space Shuttle once every two weeks. History records that this projected flight rate was much too optimistic.

The Space Shuttle vehicle was ultimately configured as a 3-element system consisting of (1) a winged orbiter, (2) a pair of solid rocket boosters (SRB’s) and (3) an external tank (ET). Both the orbiter and the SRB’s were designed to be reusable. The ET would be the only disposable element of the system since higher costs would be incurred in the recovery and refurbishment of this piece of flight hardware than in simply using a new one for each flight.

The Space Shuttle was designed to haul large payloads; on the order of 60,000 and 50,00 lbs into and out of orbit, respectively. With a maximum landing weight of 230,000 lbs, the Space Shuttle Orbiter needed wings to generate the required aerodynamic lift force. Wings were needed to satisfy the Orbiter’s 1,100-nm entry cross range requirement as well.

Following the successful first flight (STS-1) of the Space Shuttle Columbia in April of 1981, preparations began immediately to ready the Orbiter for its equally monumental second flight. The STS-2 flight crew would consist of Commander Joe Henry Engle and Pilot Richard Harrison Truly. STS-2 would be the first orbital spaceflight for both men.

On Thursday, 12 November 1981, the Space Shuttle
Columbia lifted-off at 15:09:59 UTC from Cape Canaveral’s LC-39A. Ascent flight was nominal and Columbia was placed into a 125-nm x 120-nm orbit. At this point, Columbia became the first manned spacecraft to achieve Earth-orbit twice. It was an extra special occasion for Richard Truly inasmuch as it was his 44th birthday.

Engle and Truly anticipated 5-days in orbit with their celestial steed. However, one of Columbia’s three fuel cells failed early-on and the mission was reduced to just over two days. Nonetheless, the crew achieved 90 percent of the mission’s goals. They even remained awake during a scheduled sleep period to exercise the new Canadian Remote Manipulator System (RMS).

On Saturday, 14 November 1981, Columbia and her crew successfully completed STS-2 by landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Main gear touchdown occurred at 21:23:11 UTC. Joe Engle flew the entire reentry manually. He holds the distinction of being the only pilot to manually fly a lifting space vehicle all the way from orbit to landing. Engle completed a total of 29 Programmed Test Input (PTI) aerodynamic maneuvers in the process.

STS-2 was a monumental success. Columbia became the first space vehicle to be reused for manned orbital space operations. Other Orbiters would follow including Challenger, Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavor. The final mission of the Space Shuttle Program (STS-135) was flown by Atlantis in July 2011.

As a footnote, Joe Engle went on to command one more Space Shuttle mission in 1985 (STS-51I). He retired from the USAF in November of 1986. Richard Truly served as Commander of STS-8 in 1983. That mission featured the first night launch and landing of the Space Shuttle. Richard Truly also served as NASA Administrator from May of 1989 to May of 1992.

Posted in Aerospace, History

First to Mach 2

Sixty-five years ago today, the USN/Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket became the first aircraft to fly at twice the speed of sound. This historic event took place in the skies over Edwards Air Force Base, California.

The D-558-II was a United States Navy (USN) X-aircraft and first flew in February of 1948. It was contemporaneous with the USAF/Bell XS-1. The aircraft measured 42 feet in length with a wing span of 25 feet. Maximum take-off weight was 15,266 pounds. Douglas manufactured a trio of D-558-II aircraft (Bureau Numbers 37973, 37974 and 37975).

The original version of the swept-wing D-558-II had both rocket and turbojet propulsion. The latter system providing a ground take-off capability. However, like other early X-aircraft such as the XS-1, X-1A, X-2 and X-15), the D-558-II achieved max performance through the use of a mothership and rocket power alone.

The record-setting day was Friday, 20 November 1953. On that occasion, the white D-558-II (Bureau No. 37974) was carried to the drop altitude of 32,000 feet by a USN P2B-1S (Bureau No. 84029). NACA test pilot A. Scott Crossfield was in the D-558-II cockpit. Although ailing with the stomach flu, Crossfield was not about to let a little urpiness force him to miss today’s historic aeronautical events!

Following a successful drop from the mothership, Crossfield ignited the Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 (USN designation for the XLR-11) rocket motor and started uphill. After closely adhering to a carefully planned climb schedule, Crossfield initiated a pushover at 72,000 feet that resulted in a shallow dive. Passing through 62,000 feet, the D-558-II hit a speed of 1,291 mph; Mach 2.005.

The D-558-II reached Mach 2 due to a confluence of several factors. First, Crossfield flew the profile as briefed. Second, temperatures at altitude that day were unusually low. This lowered the speed of sound and thus increased Mach number. Third, the ground crew did an extraordinary job of optimizing the D-558-II for the maximum speed mission.

Expanding on the last point mentioned above, extension tubes were added to the LR8-RM-6 rocket motor. This increased thrust from 6,000 to 9,000 pounds. The aircraft was then cold-soaked overnight in an effort to maximize its propellant load. Finally, external airframe gaps and panel openings were taped over and the aircraft was waxed and polished in an effort to minimize aerodynamic drag.

Scott Crossfield received the 1954 Lawrence B. Sperry Award for his Mach 2 exploits. The record-setting aircraft (Bureau No. 37934) is currently displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. in tribute to its many contributions to aviation history.

Posted in Aerospace, History

X-43A Maximum Speed Record

Fourteen years ago today, the NASA X-43A scramjet-powered flight research vehicle reached a record speed of over 6,600 mph (Mach 9.68). In doing so, the X-43A eclipsed its own record speed of Mach 6.83 (4,600 mph) and became the fastest air breathing aircraft of all time.

In 1996, NASA initiated a technology demonstration program known as HYPER-X. The central goal of the HYPER-X Program was to successfully demonstrate sustained supersonic combustion and thrust production of a flight-scale scramjet propulsion system at speeds up to Mach 10.

Also known as the HYPER-X Research Vehicle (HXRV), the X-43A aircraft was a scramjet test bed. The aircraft measured 12 feet in length, 5 feet in width, and weighed close to 3,000 pounds. The X-43A was boosted to scramjet take-over speeds with a modified Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket booster.

The combined HXRV-Pegasus stack was referred to as the HYPER-X Launch Vehicle (HXLV). Measuring approximately 50 feet in length, the HXLV weighed slightly more than 41,000 pounds. The HXLV was air-launched from a B-52 mothership. Together, the entire assemblage constituted a 3-stage vehicle.

The third and final flight of the HYPER-X program took place on Tuesday, 16 November 2004. The flight originated from Edwards Air Force Base, California. Using Runway 04, NASA’s venerable B-52B (S/N 52-0008) started its take-off roll at approximately 21:08 UTC. The aircraft then headed for the Pacific Ocean launch point located just west of San Nicholas Island.

At 22:34:43 UTC, the HXLV fell away from the B-52B mothership. Following a 5 second free fall, rocket motor ignition occurred and the HXLV initiated a pull-up to start its climb and acceleration to the test window. It took the HXLV 75 seconds to reach a speed of slightly over Mach 10.

Following rocket motor burnout and a brief coast period, the HXRV (X-43A) successfully separated from the Pegasus booster at 109,440 feet and Mach 9.74. The HXRV scramjet was operative by Mach 9.68. Supersonic combustion and thrust production were successfully achieved. Total engine-on duration was approximately 11 seconds.

As the X-43A decelerated along its post-burn descent flight path, the aircraft performed a series of data gathering flight maneuvers. A vast quantity of high-quality aerodynamic and flight control system data were acquired for Mach numbers ranging from hypersonic to transonic. Finally, the X-43A impacted the Pacific Ocean at a point about 850 nautical miles due west of its launch location. Total flight time was approximately 15 minutes.

The HYPER-X Program was now history. Supersonic combustion and thrust production of an airframe-integrated scramjet had indeed been achieved for the first time in flight; a goal that dated back to before the X-15 Program. Along the way, the X-43A established a speed record for air breathing aircraft and earned several Guinness World Records for its efforts.

As a footnote to the X-43A story, the HYPER-X Flight 3 mission would also be the last for NASA’s fabled B-52B mothership. The aircraft that launched many of the historic X-15, M2-F2, M2-F3, X- 24A, X-24B and HL-10 flight research missions, and all three HYPER-X flights, would take to the air no more. In tribute, B-52B (S/N 52-0008) now occupies a place of honor at a point near the North Gate of Edwards Air Force Base.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Space Twins Triumphant

Fifty-two years ago this month, NASA’s pioneering spaceflight program, Project Gemini, was brought to a successful conclusion with the 4-day flight of Gemini XII. Remarkably, the mission was the tenth Gemini flight in 20 months.

Boosted to Earth orbit by a two-stage Titan II launch vehicle, Gemini XII Command Pilot James A. Lovell, Jr. and Pilot Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. lifted-off from Cape Canaveral’s LC-19 at 20:46:33 UTC on Friday, 11 November 1966. The flight was Lovell’s second trip into space and Aldrin’s first.

Like every Gemini mission before it, Gemini XII was not a glitch-free spaceflight. For instance, when the spacecraft’s rendezvous radar began acting oddly, the crew had to resort to sextant and chart to complete the last 65 nautical miles of the rendezvous with their Agena Target Vehicle. But, overcoming this and other obstacles served to provide the experience and instill the confidence needed to meet the truly daunting challenge that lay ahead; landing on the Moon.

Unquestionably, Gemini XII’s single most important contribution to the United States manned space effort was validating the notion that a well-trained astronaut could indeed do useful work in an Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) environment. The exhausting and even dangerous EVA experiences of Gene Cernan on Gemini IX and Dick Gordon on Gemini XI brought into sharp focus the daunting challenge of performing even seemingly simple work assignments outside the Gemini spacecraft.

Buzz Aldrin performed a trio of EVA’s on Gemini XII. Two of these involved standing in his seat with the hatch open. The third involved a tethered EVA or space walk. On the latter, Aldrin successfully moved about the exterior of the Gemini-Agena combination without exhausting himself. He also used a special-purpose torque wrench to perform a number of important work tasks. Central to Aldrin’s success was the use of foot restraints and auxiliary tethers to anchor his body while floating in a weightless state.

Where others had struggled and not been able to accomplish mission EVA goals, Buzz Aldrin came off conqueror. One of the chief reasons for his success was effective pre-flight training. A pivotal aspect of this training was to practice EVA tasks underwater as a unique means of simulating the effects of weightlessness. This approach was found to be so useful that it has been used ever since to train American EVA astronauts.

Lovell and Aldrin did many more things during their highly-compressed 4-day spaceflight in November of 1966. Multiple dockings with the Agena, Gemini spacecraft maneuvering, tethered station-keeping exercises, fourteen scientific experiments, and photographing a total eclipse occupied their time aloft.

On Tuesday, 15 November 1966, on their 59th orbit, a tired, but triumphant Gemini XII crew returned to Earth. The associated reentry flight profile was automated; that is, totally controlled by computer. Yet another first and vital accomplishment for Project Gemini. Splashdown was in the West Atlantic at 19:21:04 UTC.

While Gemini would fly no more, both Lovell and Aldrin certainly would. In fact, both men would play prominent roles in several historic flights to the Moon. Jim Lovell flew on Apollo 8 in December 1968 and Apollo 13 in April 1970. And of course, Buzz Aldrin would walk on the Moon at Mare Tranquilitatis in July 1969 as the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 11.

Posted in Aerospace, History