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First Satellite Intercept Mission

Thirty-three years ago today, the USAF/LTV ASM-135 anti-satellite missile successfully intercepted a target satellite orbiting 300 nautical miles above surface of the Earth. The historic test was the first and only time that an aircraft-launched missile successfully engaged and destroyed an orbiting spacecraft.

The United States began testing anti-satellite missiles in the late 1950′s. These and subsequent vehicles used nuclear warheads to destroy orbiting satellites. A serious disadvantage of this approach was that a nuclear detonation intended to destroy an adversary satellite will likely damage nearby friendly satellites as well.

By the mid 1970′s, the favored anti-satellite (ASAT) approach had changed from nuclear detonation to kinetic kill. This latter approach required the interceptor to directly hit the target. The 15,000-mph closing velocity provided enough kinetic energy to totally destroy the target. Thus, no warhead was required.

The decision to proceed with development and deployment of an American kinetic kill weapon was made by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Carter’s decision came in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s successful demonstration of an orbital anti-satellite system.

LTV Aerospace was awarded a contract in 1979 to develop the Air-Launched Miniature Vehicle (ALMV) for the USAF. The resulting anti-satellite missile (ASM) system was designated the ASM-135. The two-stage missile was to be air-launched by a USAF F-15A Eagle executing a zoom climb. In essence, the aircraft acted as the first stage of what was effectively a 3-stage vehicle.

The ASM-135 was 18-feet in length and 20-inches diameter. The 2,600-lb vehicle was launched from the centerline station of the host aircraft. The ASM consisted of a Boeing SRAM first stage and an LTV Altair 3 second stage. The vehicle’s payload was a 30-lb kinetic kill weapon known as the Miniature Homing Vehicle (MHV).

The ASM-135 was first tested in flight on Saturday, 21 January 1984. While successful, the missile did not carry a MHV. On Tuesday, 13 November 1984, a second ASM-135 test took place. Unfortunately, the missile failed when the MHV that it was carrying was aimed at a star that served as a virtual target. Engineers went to work to make the needed fixes.

In August of 1985, a decision was made by President Ronald Reagan to launch the next ASM-135 missile against an orbiting US satellite. The Solwind P78-1 satellite would serve as the target. Congress was subsequently notified by the Executive Branch regarding the intended mission.

The historic satellite takedown mission occurred on Friday, 13 September 1985. USAF F-15A (S/N 77-0084), stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, California and code-named Celestial Eagle, departed nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying the ASM-135 test package. Major Wilbert D. Pearson was at the controls of the Celestial Eagle.

Flying over the Pacific Ocean at Mach 1.22, Pearson executed a 3.8-g pull to achieve a 65-degree inertial pitch angle in a zoom climb. As the aircraft passed through 38,000-feet at Mach 0.93, the ASM-135 was launched at a position 200 miles west of Vandenberg. Both stages fired properly and the MHV intercepted the Solwind P78-1 satellite within 6-inches of the aim point. The 2,000-lb satellite was completely obliterated.

In the aftermath of the stunningly successful takedown of the Solwind P78-1 satellite, USAF was primed to continue testing the ASM-135 and then introduce it into the inventory. Plans called for upwards of 112 ASM-135 rounds to be flown on F-15A aircraft stationed at McChord AFB in Washington state and Langley AFB in Virginia. However, such was not to be.

Even before the vehicle flew, the United States Congress acted to increasingly restrict the ASM-135 effort. A ban on using the ASM-135 against a space target was put into effect in December 1985. Although USAF actually conducted successful additional ASM-135 flight tests against celestial virtual targets in 1986, the death knell for the program had been sounded.

In the final analysis, a combination of US-Soviet treaty concerns, tepid USAF support, and escalating costs killed the ASM-135 anti-satellite effort. The Reagan Administration formally cancelled the program in 1988.

While the ASM-135 effort was relatively short-lived, the technology that it spawned has propagated to similar applications. Indeed, today’s premier exoatmospheric hit-to-kill interceptor, the United States Navy SM-3 Block IA anti-ballistic missile, is a beneficiary of ASM-135 homing guidance, intercept trajectory and kinetic kill weapon technologies.

Posted in Aerospace, History

The First Spaceman

Sixty-two years ago to the day, the rocket-powered USAF/Bell X-2 aircraft established a new altitude record when the vehicle soared to 126,200 feet above sea level. This historic accomplishment took place on the penultimate mission of the type’s troubled 20-flight aeronautical research program.

The X-2 was the successor to Bell’s X-1A rocket-powered aircraft which had recorded maximum speed and altitude marks of 1,650 mph (Mach 2.44) and 90,440 feet, respectively. The X-2 was designed to fly beyond Mach 3 and above 100,000 feet. The X-2’s primary mission was to investigate aircraft flight control and aerodynamic heating in the triple-sonic flight regime.

The X-2 had a gross take-off weight of 24,910 lbs and was powered by a Curtis-Wright XLR-25 rocket motor which generated 15,000-lbs of thrust. Aircraft empty weight was 12,375 lbs. Like the majority of X-aircraft, the X-2 was air-launched from a mothership. In the X-2’s case, an USAF EB-50D served as the drop aircraft. The X-2 was released from the launch aircraft at 225 mph and 30,000 feet.

The day was Friday, 07 September 1956. The pilot for the X-2 maximum altitude mission was USAF Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr. Kincheloe was a Korean War veteran and highly accomplished test pilot. He wore a partial pressure suit for survival at extreme altitude.

While the dynamic pressure at the apex of his trajectory was only 19 psf, Kincheloe successfully piloted the X-2 with aerodynamic controls only. The X-2 was not configured with reaction controls. Mach number over the top of the trajectory was supersonic (approximately Mach 1.7).

Kicheloe’s maximum altitude flight in the X-2 (S/N 46-674) would remain the highest altitude achieved by a manned aircraft until August of 1960 when the fabled X-15 would fly just beyond 136,000 feet. However, for his achievement on that late summer day in 1956, the popular press would refer to Iven Kincheloe as the “First of the Space Men”.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Paving the Way

Forty-three years ago this month, the USAF/NASA/Martin X-24B became the first lifting body to perform an unpowered precision landing on a concrete runway. The feat was pivotal to convincing NASA officials that landing the Space Shuttle Orbiter in an unpowered state was operationally feasible.

Early Space Shuttle Orbiter operational concepts featured the use of a pair of turbojets to provide a powered landing capability. These air breathing engines were to be internally stowed just below the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods. The turbojets would be deployed and started once the Orbiter had decelerated to high subsonic flight speeds.

While air breathing propulsion would give the Orbiter a loiter and go-around capability, the drawbacks were significant. Jet fuel would have to be carried into and out of earth orbit. The weight of this fuel and the turbojets would severely penalize Orbiter payload capability. Further, the system would increase both the complexity of and cost to Shuttle operations.

As the Shuttle Program grappled with the development of a powered landing capability for the Orbiter, the NASA DFRC flight test community made what appeared to be a rather bold claim. The Orbiter could simply glide all the way to touchdown and land dead-stick. After all, X-planes had been doing so safely and without incident since the late 1940’s.

A leading proponent of unpowered Shuttle landings was NASA DFRC test pilot John Manke. He was convinced that the Orbiter could routinely and safely conduct unpowered precision landings on a concrete runway. If true, the Orbiter could land anywhere a 15,000-foot concrete runway was located.

Manke proposed that the X-24B (S/N 66-13551) lifting body be employed to conduct unpowered precision landings on Runway 04/22 at Edwards Air Force Base. He and fellow test pilot USAF Lt. Col. Michael V. Love practiced low lift-to-drag precision landings using F-104 and T-38 aircraft in preparation for the demonstrations.

On Tuesday, 05 August 1975, John Manke successfully made the first-ever unpowered precision landing of an aircraft on a concrete runway. The X-24B main gear touched-down exactly at the aimpoint situated 5,000 feet down Runway 04/22. On Wednesday, 20 August 1975, Mike Love duplicated the feat.

Following the successful unpowered precision landings with the X-24B lifting body, John Manke was quoted as saying: “We now know that concrete runway landings are operationally feasible and that touchdown accuracies of ±500 feet can be expected.” NASA Space Shuttle Program management concurred and officially adopted the unpowered precision landing concept.

History records that thirty-one years of Orbiter flight operations confirmed the wisdom of that long-ago decision.

Posted in Aerospace, History

X-15 Flight 91

Fifty-five years ago today, NASA chief research pilot Joseph A. Walker flew X-15 Ship No. 3 (S/N 56-6672) to an altitude of 354,200 feet. This flight would mark the highest altitude ever achieved by the famed hypersonic research vehicle.

Carried aloft by NASA’s NB-52A (S/N 52-0003) mothership, Walker’s X-15 was launched over Smith Ranch Dry Lake, Nevada at 17:05:42 UTC. Following drop at around 45,000 feet and Mach 0.82, Walker ignited the X-15’s small, but mighty XLR-99 rocket engine and pulled his ship into a steep vertical climb.

The XLR-99 was run at 100 percent power for 85.8 seconds with burnout occurring around 176,000 feet on the way uphill. Maximum velocity achieved was 3,794 miles per hour which translates to Mach 5.58 at the burnout altitude. Following burnout of the XLR-99, Walker’s X-15 gained an additional 178,200 feet in altitude as it coasted to apogee.

Joe Walker went over the top at 354,200 feet (67 miles). Although he did not have much time for sight-seeing, the Earth’s curvature was strikingly obvious to the pilot as he started downhill from his lofty perch. Walker subsequently endured a hefty 5-g’s of eyeballs-in normal acceleration during the backside dive pull-out. The aircraft was brought to a wings-level attitude at 70,000 feet. Shortly after, Walker greased the landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

The X-15 maximum altitude flight, in which the aircraft’s design altitude was exceeded by more than 100,000 feet, lasted 11 minutes and 8 seconds from drop to nose wheel stop. In that time, Walker and X-15 Ship 3 covered 305 miles in ground range. This mission was Ship No. 3’s 22nd flight and the 91st of the legendary X-15 Flight Research Program.

For Joseph Albert Walker, the 22nd of August 1963 marked his 25th and last flight in an X-15 cockpit. The mission qualified him for Astronaut Wings since he had exceeded the 328,000 foot (100 km) FAI/NASA standard set for such a distinction. However, it would be more than four decades after his historic mission that Walker would be officially be recognized as an astronaut. In a special ceremony conducted at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center on Tuesday, 23 August 2005, Joe Walker was posthumously awarded his Astronaut Wings.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Hypersonic Nose Gear Deployment

Fifty-four years ago today, the fabled North American X-15 hit a speed of 3,590 mph (Mach 5.23) in a flight that reached an altitude of 103,300 feet. While decelerating through Mach 4.2, the nose gear of the aircraft unexpectedly deployed in flight.

The 114th powered flight of the legendary X-15 Program took place on Friday, 14 August 1964. USAF Major Robert A. Rushworth was at the controls of X-15 Ship No. 2 (S/N 56-6671). The mission would be Rushworth’s 22nd flight in the famed hypersonic aircraft.

X-15 drop from the NB-52A (S/N 52-0003) launch aircraft took place over Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada. Seconds later, Rushworth called for 100% power from the X-15’s XLR-99 liquid-fueled rocket engine as he pulled into a steep climb. He subsequently pushed-over and then leveled-off at 103,300 feet.

XLR-99 burnout occurred 80.3 seconds after ignition. At this juncture, the X-15 was traveling at 3,590 mph; better than 5 times the speed of sound. Following rocket motor burnout, the aircraft slowed and began to lose altitude under the influence of weight and aerodynamic drag.

As the Mach meter needle passed through Mach 4.2, Rushworth heard a loud bang from the airframe. The aircraft became hard to control as it gyrated in pitch, yaw and roll. Rushworth was equal to the moment and brought his troubled steed under control. However, the aircraft had an uncommanded sideslip and Rushworth had to use left aileron to hold the wings level.

Gathering his wits, Rushworth realized that the loud bang he heard was very similar to that which occurred when the nose gear was deployed in the landing pattern. Unaccountably, the X-15 nose gear had deployed in supersonic flight. An unsettling confirmation of Rushworth’s hypothesis came when the pilot spotted smoke, quite a bit of it, in the X-15 cockpit.

As Rushworth neared Edwards Air Force Base, chase aircraft caught up with him and confirmed that the nose gear was indeed down and locked. Further, the tires were so scorched from aerodynamic heating that they probably would disintegrate during touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake. They verily did.

Despite his tireless nose gear, Rushworth was able to control the rollout of his aircraft fairly well on the playa silt. He brought the X-15 to a stop and deplaned. Man and machine had survived to fly another day.

Post-flight analysis revealed that expansion of the X-15 fuselage due to aerodynamic heating was greater than expected. The nose gear door bowed or deformed outward more than anticipated as well. Together, these two anomalies caused the gear uplock hook to bend and release the nose gear. Fixes were subsequently made to Ship No. 2 to prevent a recurrence of the nose gear door deployment anomaly.

Rushworth next flew X-15 Ship No. 2 on Tuesday, 29 September 1964. He reached a maximum speed of 3,542 mph (Mach 5.2) at 97,800 feet. The nose gear door remained locked. However, while decelerating through Mach 4.5, Rushworth heard a bang that was less intense than the previous flight. This time, thermal stresses caused the nose gear door air scoop to deploy in flight. While the aircraft handled poorly, Rushworth managed to get it and himself back on the ground in one piece.

Following another redesign effort, Rushworth took to the air in X-15 Ship No. 2 on Thursday, 17 February 1965. He hit 3,539 mph (Mach 5.27) at 95,100 feet. On this occasion, both the nose gear door and nose gear door scoop remained in place. Unfortunately, the right main landing skid deployed at Mach 4.3 and 85,000 feet.

Thermal stresses were once again the culprit. Despite degraded handling qualities with the landing skid deployed, the valiant Rushworth safely landed the X-15. Upon deplaning, he is reported to have kicked the aircraft in a show of disgust and frustration. Unprofessional maybe, but certainly understandable.

Yet another redesign effort followed in the aftermath of the unexpected main landing skid deployment. This was the third consecutive mission for X-15 Ship No. 2 and Rushworth to experience a thermally-induced landing gear or landing skid deployment anomaly. Happily, subsequent flights of the subject aircraft were free of such vexing problems.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Enterprise First Free Flight

Forty-one years ago this month, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise successfully completed the first free flight of the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) Program. NASA Astronauts Fred W. Haise, Jr. and Charles G. “Gordon” Fullerton were at the controls of the pathfinder orbiter vehicle (OV-101).

Developers of the Space Shuttle Orbiter faced the challenge of designing a vehicle capable of flight from 17,500 mph (Mach 28) at entry interface (400,000 ft) to 220 mph (Mach 0.3) at landing. Complicating this task was the fact that the Orbiter flew an unpowered, lifting entry that covered a distance of more than 4,400 nm. Once at the landing site, Shuttle pilots had a single opportunity to land the winged ship.

An Orbiter’s approach to the landing field is quite steep compared to that of a commercial airliner. Whereas the glide slope of the latter is around 2-3 degrees, the Orbiter’s flight path during approach is about 22 degrees below the horizon. Falling like a rock is an apt description of its flight state.

The Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) involved a series of flight tests intended to verify the subsonic airworthiness and handling qualities of the Orbiter. Conducted at Edwards Air Force Base between February and October 1977, the ALT employed a modified Boeing 747 known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). The Orbiter Enterprise was attached atop the SCA to hitch a ride to altitude.

The Shuttle ALT consisted of a total of thirteen (13) flight tests; five (5) Captive-Inactive (CI) tests, five (5) Captive-Active (CA) tests and three (3) Free Flight (FF) tests. CI testing was aimed at verifying the handling qualities of the SCA-Orbiter combination in flight. There was no crew was onboard the Orbiter for these tests. CA testing focused on preparing for the upcoming free flight series. A crew flew onboard the Orbiter which remained mated to the SCA.

The ALT Free Flights were where the rubber met the road so to speak. The Enterprise and her crew separated from the SCA at altitudes ranging from between 19,000 and 26,000 ft to test the Orbiter in free flight. Landings were made initially on Rogers Dry Lake (Runway 17) and ultimately on Edwards’ 15,000-ft concrete runway (Runway 22).

The Enterprise was flown in two (2) different configurations. The first involved the use of a tailcone fairing which streamlined the base region of the Orbiter. This increased the Orbiter’s lift-to-drag ratio which decreased the vehicle’s rate of descent. It also reduced the level of buffeting experienced by the SCA’s empennage while the Orbiter rode atop the carrier aircraft.

The second Enterprise configuration flown involved removal of the tailcone. This significantly reduced the Orbiter’s lift-to-drag ratio and correspondingly increased the rate of sink. Indeed, the Orbiter’s descent rate without the tailcone was roughly twice as high as that with the tailcone. Removal of the tailcone also markedly increased the buffet loads sustained by the SCA’s empennage.

ALT Free Flight No. 1 took place on Friday, 12 August 1977. With Fitzhugh L. Fulton, Jr. and Thomas C. McMurtry flying the SCA (N905NA), the Enterprise and her crew of Haise and Fullerton was carried to an altitude of 24,100 ft. At a speed of 310 mph in a slight dive, the big glider cleanly separated from the SCA. Just 321 seconds later, the Orbiter touched-down on Rogers Dry Lake at 213 mph.

ALT Free Flights No. 2-5 were successfully conducted over the next several months. Astronauts Joseph H. Engle and Richard H. Truly flew Enterprise on the second and fourth free flights while Haise and Fullerton manned the Orbiter’s cockpit on the third and fifth missions.

Enterprise flew without the tailcone during the last two ALT flights. As expected, the trip downstairs was rapid. Time of descent from 22,400 ft for Free Flight No. 4 was 154 seconds with a landing speed of 230 mph. Free Flight No. 5 took only 121 seconds to descend 19,000 ft and landed at 219 mph.

ALT Free Flight No. 5 was notable in that (1) the Enterprise made its first landing on concrete and (2) a Pilot-Induced Oscillation (PIO) occurred at initial touchdown. For a few tense moments Command Pilot Haise struggled to keep his skittish steed on the ground. Following several disturbing skips and bounces, the Enterprise finally settled down and rolled to a stop.

The Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) were a necessary prelude to space for the Orbiter. Indeed, the ALT flights represent the first time that NASA’s new winged reentry vehicle took to the air. Having successfully demonstrated the ability to safely land an Orbiter, the next flight in the Space Shuttle Program would be STS-1 in April 1981. Interestingly, that 2-day mission would come to a successful conclusion when the Columbia landed on Rogers Dry Lake back at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Posted in Aerospace, History

The X-1A’s Highest Flight

Sixty-four years ago this month, USAF Major Arthur W. “Kit” Murray set a new world altitude record of 90,440 feet in the rocket-powered USAF/Bell X-1A. In doing so, Murray reported that he could detect the curvature of the Earth from the apex of his trajectory.

The USAF/Bell X-1A was designed to explore flight beyond Mach 2. The craft measured 35.5 feet in length and had a wing span of 28 feet. Gross take-off weight was 16,500 pounds. Power was provided by an XLR-11 rocket motor which produced a maximum sea level thrust of 6,000 lbs. This powerplant burned 9,200 pounds of propellants (alcohol and liquid oxygen) in about 270 seconds of operation.

Similar to other early rocket-powered X-aircraft such as the Bell XS-1, Douglas D-558-II, Bell X-2 and North American X-15, the X-1A flew two basic types of high performance missions. That is, the bulk of the vehicle’s propulsive energy was directed either in the horizontal or in the vertical. The former was known as the speed mission while the latter was called the altitude mission.

On Saturday, 12 December 1953, USAF Major Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager flew the X-1A (S/N 48-1384) to an unofficial speed record of 1,650 mph (Mach 2.44). Moments after doing so, the X-1A went divergent in all three axes. The aircraft tumbled and gyrated through the sky. Control inputs had no effect. Yeager was in serious trouble. He could not control his aircraft and punching-out was not an option. The X-1A had no ejection seat.

Chuck Yeager took a tremendous physical and emotional beating for more than 70 seconds as the X-1A wildly tumbled. His helmet hit the canopy and cracked it. He struck the control column so hard that it was physically bent. His frantic air-to-ground communications were distinctly those of a man who was convinced that he was about to die.

As the X-1A tumbled, it decelerated and lost altitude. At 33,000 feet, a battered and groggy Yeager found himself in an inverted spin. The aircraft suddenly fell into a normal spin from which Yeager recovered at 25,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains situated northwest of Edwards. Somehow, Yeager managed to get himself and the X-1A back home intact.

The culprit in Yeager’s wide ride was the then little-known phenomenon identified as roll inertial coupling. That is, inertial moments produced by gyroscopic and centripetal accelerations overwhelmed aerodynamic control moments and thus caused the aircraft to depart controlled flight. Roll rate was the critical mechanism since it coupled pitch and yaw motion.

In the aftermath of Yeager’s near-death experience in the X-1A, the Air Force ceased flying speed missions with the aircraft. Instead, a series of flights followed in which the goal was to extract maximum altitude performance from the aircraft. USAF Major Arthur W. “Kit” Murray was assigned as the Project Pilot for these missions.

On Thursday, 26 August 1954, Kit Murray took the X-1A (S/N 48-1384) to a maximum altitude of 90,440 feet. This was new FAI record. Murray also ran into the same roll inertial coupling phenomena as Yeager. However, his experience was less traumatic than was Yeager’s. This was partly due to the fact that Murray had the benefit of learning from Yeager’s flight. This allowed him to both anticipate and know how to correct for this flight disturbance.

Murray’s achievement in the X-1A meant that the X-1A held the records for both maximum speed and altitude for manned aircraft. It did so until both records were eclipsed by the Bell X-2 in September of 1956.

Kit Murray was a highly accomplished test pilot who never received the public adulation and notoriety that Chuck Yeager did. He retired from the Air Force in 1960 after serving for 20 years in the military. Murray went on to a very successful career in engineering following his military service. Kit Murray lived to the age of 92 and passed from this earthly scene on Monday, 25 July 2011.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Back Home

Forty-nine years ago today, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins returned safely to the Earth to bring to a close the first space mission to land men on the lunar surface. With their safe return, President John F. Kennedy’s inspired national goal of landing men on the Moon and bringing them safely home before the end of the 1960’s was successfully accomplished.

The crew of Apollo 11 and their celestial chariot, Columbia, splashed-down in the Pacific Ocean at a point 812 nautical southwest of Hawaii. The epic journey to the Moon and back covered 952,700 nautical miles. Mission total elapsed time was 195 hours, 18 minutes, and 35 seconds.

Following splashdown, the Apollo 11 astronauts and their Command Module Columbia were brought aboard the USS Hornet (CV-12). Concerned that they would infect Earthlings with lunar pathogens, NASA quarantined the astronauts in the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), which was a converted vacation trailer.

The Hornet steamed for Hawaii and transferred the MQF for airlift to Ellington Air Force Base, Texas. Following landing, the MQF and its heroic occupants were transported to the Johnson Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas. Once there, the astronauts and several medical staff were transferred from the MQF to more substantial accommodations known as the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL).

Combined stay time in the MQF and LRL was 21 days. During their forced confinement, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins debriefed the Apollo 11 mission, rested, and mused about their unforgettable experiences at the Moon.

The Apollo 11 astronauts were released from the LRL on Thursday, 13 August 1969, having never contracted nor transmitted a lunar disease.

Parenthetically, Apollo 11 brought the first geologic samples from the Moon back to Earth. Roughly 48 pounds of lunar rock samples were collected. Two primary types of rocks, basalts and breccias, were found at the Sea of Tranquility landing site. Subsequent analyses indicated that these samples neither contained water nor provided evidence for living organisms at any time in the history of the Moon.

Posted in Aerospace, History

“Boy, That Was a Ride!”

Fifty-six years ago to the day, USAF Major Robert M. White flew the North American X-15 hypersonic research aircraft to a record altitude of 314,750 feet (51.8 nautical miles). In doing so, he became the first X-15 pilot to be awarded USAF Astronaut Wings.

The North American X-15 was the first manned hypersonic aircraft. It was designed, engineered, constructed and first flown in the 1950′s. As originally conceived, the X-15 was designed to reach 4,000 mph (Mach 6) and 250,000 feet. Before its flight test career was over, the type would meet and exceed both performance goals.

North American built a trio of X-15 airframes; Ship No. 1 (S/N 56-6670), Ship No. 2 (56-6671) and Ship No. 3 (56-6672). The X-15 measured 50 feet in length, had a wing span of 22 feet and a GTOW of 33,000 lbs. Ship No. 2 would later be modified to the X-15A-2 enhanced performance configuration. The X-15A-2 had a length of 52.5 feet and a GTOW of around 56,000 lbs.

The Reaction Motors XLR-99 rocket engine powered the X-15. The small, but mighty XLR-99 generated 57,000 pounds of sea level thrust at full-throttle. It weighed only 910 pounds. The XLR-99 used anhydrous ammonia and LOX as propellants. Burn time varied between 83 seconds for the stock X-15 and about 150 seconds for the X-15A-2.

The X-15 was carried to drop conditions (typically Mach 0.8 at 42,000 feet) by a B-52 mothership. A pair of aircraft were used for this purpose; a B-52A (S/N 52-003) and a B-52B (S/N 52-008). Once dropped from the mothership, the X-15 pilot lit the XLR-99 to accelerate the aircraft. The X-15A-2 also carried a pair of drop tanks which provided propellants for a longer burn time than was possible with the stock X-15 flight.

The X-15 employed both aerodynamic and reaction flight controls. The latter were required to maintain vehicle attitude in space-equivalent flight. The X-15 pilot wore a full-pressure suit in consequence of the aircraft’s extreme altitude capability. The typical X-15 drop-to-landing flight duration was on the order of 10 minutes. All X-15 landings were performed deadstick.

On Tuesday, 17 July 1962, Bob White flew his 15th X-15 mission. The X-15 and White had already become the first aircraft-pilot duo to hit Mach 4, 5 and 6. On this particular day, White was at the controls of X-15 Ship No. 3. It was the 62nd flight research mission of the X-15 Program with a target maximum altitude of 282,000 feet.

At 09:31:10 UTC, X-15 Ship No. 3 was launched from the B-52B mothership commanded by USAF Captain Jack Allavie. White lit the XLR-99 and pulled into a steep climb. His hypersonic steed rapidly gained altitude. Burnout of the XLR-99 occurred 82 seconds after ignition; 2.0 seconds longer than planned. At this point, White was traveling at 3,832 mph or Mach 5.45. Following an uneventful climb to apogee and a expertly-flown reentry, White touched-down safely on Rogers Dry Lake at 09:41:30 UTC. His reaction to the entire experience was succinctly expressed when he exclaimed, “Boy, that was a ride!”

The extra impulse provided by the longer-than-planned burn of the XLR-99 rocket engine drove White’s X-15 more than 32,000 feet higher than planned. The resulting apogee of 314,750 feet established a still-standing FAI world altitude record for piloted aircraft. The occasion also marked the first time that the X-15 flew higher than 300,000 feet. For flying beyond 50 statute miles (264,000 feet), Bob White received USAF Astronaut Wings; the first X-15 pilot to be awarded such.

Bob White piloted the X-15 a total of sixteen (16) times. He was one (1) of only twelve (12) men to fly the aircraft. White left X-15 Program and Edwards AFB in 1963. He went on to serve his country in numerous capacities as a member of the Air Force including flying 70 combat missions in Viet Nam. He returned to Edwards AFB as AFFTC Commander in August of 1970.

Major General Robert M. White retired from the United States Air Force in 1981. During his period of military service, he received numerous decorations and awards including the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with four oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star Medal, and Air Medal with 16 oak leaf clusters.

Bob White was a true American hero. He was one of those heroes who neither sought nor received much notoreity for his accomplishments. He served his country and the aviation profession well. Bob White’s final flight occurred on Wednesday, 17 March 2010. He was 85 years of age.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Liberty Bell 7

Fifty-seven years ago this month, Mercury Seven Astronaut Vigil I. “Gus” Grissom, Jr. became the second American to go into space. Grissom’s suborbital mission was flown aboard a Mercury space capsule that he named Liberty Bell 7.

The United States first manned space mission was flown on Friday, 05 May 1961. On that day, NASA Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. flew a 15-minute suborbital mission down the Eastern Test Range in his Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft. Known as Mercury-Redstone 3, Shepard’s mission was entirely successful and served to ignite the American public’s interest in manned spaceflight.

Shepard was boosted into space via a single stage Redstone rocket. This vehicle was originally designed as an Intermediate-Range ballistic Missile (IRBM) by the United States Army. It was man-rated (that is, made safer and more reliable) by NASA for the Mercury suborbital mission. A descendant of the German V-2 missile, the Redstone produced 78,000 lbs of sea level thrust.

Shepard’s suborbital trajectory resulted in an apogee of 101 nautical miles (nm). With a burnout velocity of 7,541 ft/sec, Freedom 7 splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean 263 nm downrange of its LC-5 launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Shepard endured a maximum deceleration of 11 g’s during the reentry phase of the flight.

Mercury-Redstone 4 was intended as a second and confirming test of the Mercury spacecraft’s space-worthiness. If successful, this mission would clear the way for pursuit and achievement of the Mercury Program’s true goal which was Earth-orbital flight. All of this rested on the shoulders of Gus Grissom as he prepared to be blasted into space.

Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft was a better ship than Shepard’s steed from several standpoints. Liberty Bell 7 was configured with a large centerline window rather than the two small viewing ports featured on Freedom 7. The vehicle’s manual flight controls included a new rate stabilization system. Grissom’s spacecraft also incorporated a new explosive hatch that made for easier release of this key piece of hardware.

Mercury-Redstone 4 (MR-4) was launched from LC-5 at Cape Canaveral on Friday, 21 July 1961. Lift-off time was 12:20:36 UTC. From a trajectory standpoint, Grissom’s flight was virtually the same as Shepard’s. He found the manual 3-axis flight controls to be rather sluggish. Spacecraft control was much improved when the new rate stabilization system was switched-on. The time for retro-fire came quickly. Grissom invoked the retro-fire sequence and Liberty Bell 7 headed back to Earth.

Liberty Bell 7’s reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere was conducted in a successful manner. The drogue came out at 21,000 feet to stabilize the spacecraft. Main parachute deployed occurred at 12,300 feet. With a touchdown velocity of 28 ft/sec, Grissom’s spacecraft splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean 15 minutes and 32 seconds after lift-off. America now had both a second spaceman and a second successful space mission under its belt.

Following splashdown, Grissom logged final switch settings in the spacecraft, stowed equipment and prepared for recovery as several Marine helicopters hovered nearby. As he did so, the craft’s new explosive hatch suddenly blew for no apparent reason. Water started to fill the cockpit and the surprised astronaut exited the spacecraft as quickly as possible.

Grissom found himself outside his psacecraft and in the water. He was horrfied to see that Liberty Bell 7 was in imminent peril of sinking. The primary helicopter made a valiant effort to hoist the spacecraft out of the water, but the load was too much for it. Faced with losing his vehicle and crew, the pilot elected to release Liberty Bell 7 and abandon it to a watery grave.

Meanwhile, Grissom struggled just to stay afloat in the churning ocean. The prop blast from the recovery helicopters made the going even tougher. Finally, Grissom was able to retrieve and get himself into a recovery sling provided by one of the helicopters. He was hoisted aboard and subsequently delivered safely to the USS Randolph.

In the aftermath of Mercury-Redstone 4, accusations swirled around Grissom that he had either intentionally or accidently hit the detonation plunger that activated the explosive hatch. Always the experts on everything, especially those things of which they have little comprehension, the root weevils of the press insinuated that Grissom must have panicked. Grissom steadfastly asserted to the day that he passed from this earthly scene that he did no such thing.

Liberty Bell 7 rested at a depth of 15,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean until it was recovered by a private enterprise on Tuesday, 20 July 1999; a day short of the 38th anniversary of Gus Grissom’s MR-4 flight. The beneficiary of a major restoration effort, Liberty Bell 7 is now on display at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. The spacecraft’s explosive hatch was never found.

As for Gus Grissom, ultimate vindication of his character and competence came in the form of his being named by NASA as Commander for the first flights of Gemini and Apollo. Indeed, Grissom and rookie astronaut John W. Young successfully made the first manned Gemini flight in March of 1965 during Gemini-Titan 3. Later, Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee trained as the crew of Apollo 1 which was slated to fly in early 1967. History records that their lives were cut short in the tragic and infamous Apollo 1 Spacecraft Fire of Friday, 27 January 1967.

Posted in Aerospace, Final Flight