Forty years ago today, the Space Shuttle Columbia successfully returned from its first earth-orbital mission. An estimated 225,000 people witnessed the historic landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Known officially as the Space Transportation System (STS), the Space Shuttle was unlike any manned space vehicle ever flown. A giant aircraft known as the Orbiter was side-mounted on a huge liquid-propellant stage called the External Tank (ET). Flanking opposing sides of the ET was a pair of Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB). The Orbiter, SRB’s and ET measured 122 feet, 149 feet and 154 feet in length, respectively.
The Space Shuttle system was conceived with an emphasis on reusability. Each Orbiter (Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavor) was designed to fly 100 missions. Each SRB was intended for multiple mission use as well. The only single-use element was the ET since it was more cost effective to use a new one for each flight than to recover and refurbish a reusable version.
NASA called STS-1 the boldest test flight in history. Indeed, the STS-1 mission marked the first time that astronauts would fly a space vehicle on its inaugural flight! STS-1 was also the first time that a manned booster system incorporated solid rocket propulsion. Unlike liquid propellant rocket systems, once ignited, the Shuttle’s solid rockets burned until fuel exhaustion.
And then there was the Orbiter element which had its own new and flight-unproven propulsion systems. Namely, the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) and Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS). Each of the three (3) SSME’s generated 375,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Thrust would increase to 475,000 pounds in vacuum. Each OMS rocket engine produced 6,000 pounds of thrust in vacuum.
The Orbiter was also configured with a reusable thermal protection system (TPS) which consisted of silica tiles and reinforced carbon-carbon material. The TPS for all previous manned space vehicles utilized single-use ablators. Would the new TPS work? How robust would it be in flight? What post-flight care would be needed? Answers would come only through flight.
To add to the stress of first flight, the Orbiter was a winged vehicle and would therefore perform a hypersonic lifting entry. The vehicle energy state would have to be managed perfectly over the 5,000 mile reentry flight path from entry interface to runway touchdown. Since the Orbiter flew an unpowered entry, it would land dead-stick. There would only be one chance to land.
On Sunday,12 April 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted-off from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Official launch time was 12:00:03 UTC. The flight crew consisted of Commander John W. Young and Pilot Robert L. Crippen. Their Columbia launch stack tipped the scales at 4.5 million pounds and thundered away from the pad on over 7 million pounds of thrust.
Columbia went through maximum dynamic pressure (606 psf) at Mach 1.06 and 26.5 KFT. SRB separation occurred 120 seconds into flight at Mach 3.88 and 174,000 feet; 10,000 feet higher than predicted. This lofting of the ascent trajectory was later attributed to unmodeled plume-induced aerodynamic effects in the Orbiter and ET base region.
Following separation, Columbia rode the ET to burnout at Mach 21 and 389.7 KFT. Following ET separation, Columbia’s OMS engines were fired minutes later to achieve a velocity of 17,500 mph and a 166-nautical mile orbit.
Young and Crippen orbited the Earth 37 times before coming home on Tuesday, 14 April 1981. In doing so, they successfully flew the first hypersonic lifting reentry from earth orbit. Though unaware of it at the time, the crew came very close to catastrophe as the Orbiter’s body flap had to be deflected 8 degrees more than predicted to maintain hypersonic pitch control.
The reason for this “hypersonic anomaly” was that ground test and aero modeling had failed to capture the effects of high temperature gas dynamics on Orbiter pitch aerodynamics. Specifically, the vehicle was more stable in hypersonic flight than had been predicted. This necessitated greater nose-down body flap deflections to trim the vehicle in pitch. It was a close-call. But Columbia and her crew lived to fly another day.
Columbia and her crew touched-down at 220 mph on Runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, California at 18:20:57 UTC. Young and Crippen were euphoric with the against-the-odds success of the Space Shuttle’s first mission.
NASA too reveled in the Shuttle’s marvelous accomplishment. And so did America. This was the country’s first manned space mission since 1975. At the time, this was the longest period of manned spaceflight inactivity ever in our nation’s history.
Fittingly, a well-known national news magazine celebrated Columbia’s success with a headline which read: “America is Back!”
And while Columbia flies no more, we remember with fondness that first Orbiter, her first flight, and her many subsequent accomplishments. To which we say: Hail Columbia!
Fifty-nine years ago today, Project Mercury Astronaut John Herschel Glenn, Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn’s spacecraft name and mission call sign was Friendship 7.
Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) lifted-off from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 14 at 14:47:39 UTC on Tuesday, 20 February 1962. It was the first time that the Atlas LV-3B booster was used for a manned spaceflight.
Three-hundred and twenty seconds after lift-off, Friendship 7 achieved an elliptical orbit measuring 143 nautical miles (apogee) by 86 nautical miles (perigee). Orbital inclination and period were 32.5 degrees and 88.5 minutes, respectively.
The most compelling moments in the United States’ first manned orbital mission centered around a sensor indication that Glenn’s heat shield and landing bag had become loose at the beginning of his second orbit. If true, Glenn would be incinerated during entry.
Concern for Glenn’s welfare persisted for the remainder of the flight and a decision was made to retain his retro package following completion of the retro-fire sequence. It was hoped that the 3 flimsy straps holding the retro package would also hold the heat shield in place.
During Glenn’s return to the atmosphere, both the spent retro package and its restraining straps melted in the searing heat of re-entry. Glenn saw chunks of flaming debris passing by his spacecraft window. At one point he radioed, “That’s a real fireball outside”.
Happily, the spacecraft’s heat shield held during entry and the landing bag deployed nominally. There had never really been a problem. The sensor indication was found to be false.
Friendship 7 splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean at a point 432 nautical miles east of Cape Canaveral at 19:43:02 UTC. John Glenn had orbited the Earth 3 times during a mission which lasted 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds. In short order, spacecraft and astronaut were successfully recovered aboard the USS Noa.
John Glenn became a national hero in the aftermath of his 3-orbit mission aboard Friendship 7. It seemed that just about every newspaper page in the days following his flight carried some sort of story about his historic feat. Indeed, it is difficult for those not around back in 1962 to fully comprehend the immensity of Glenn’s flight in terms of what it meant to the United States.
John Herschel Glenn, Jr. passed away on 08 December 2016 at the age of 95. His trusty Friendship 7 spacecraft is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
Fifty-four years ago this month the Apollo 204 prime crew perished as fire swept through their Apollo Block I Command Module (CM). The Apollo 204 crew of Command Pilot Vigil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee had been scheduled to make the first manned flight of the Apollo Program some three weeks hence.
On Friday, 27 January 1967, during a plugs-out ground test on LC-34 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, a fire broke out in the Apollo 204 spacecraft at 23:31:04 UTC (6:31:04 pm EST). Shortly after, a chilling cry was heard across the communications network from Astronaut Chaffee: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit”.
Believed to have started just below Grissom’s seat, the fire quickly erupted into an inferno that claimed the men’s lives in less than 30 seconds. While each received extensive 3rd degree burns, death was attributed to toxic smoke inhalation.
The Apollo 204 fire was most likely brought about by some minor malfunction or failure in equipment or wire insulation. This failure, which was never positively identified, initiated a sequence of events that culminated in the conflagration.
The post-mishap investigation uncovered numerous defects in CM Block I design, manufacturing, and workmanship. The use of a (1) pure oxygen atmosphere pressurized to 16.7 psia and (2) complex 3-component hatch design (that took a minimum of 90 seconds to open) sealed the astronauts’ fate.
A haunting irony of the tragedy is that America lost her first astronaut crew, not in the sideral heavens, but in a spacecraft that was firmly rooted to the ground.
Fifty-two years ago today, three American astronauts departed Earth to become the first men to orbit the Moon during the flight of Apollo 8. This epic mission also featured the first manned flight of the mighty Saturn V launch vehicle as well as history’s first super-orbital entry of a manned spacecraft.
Following the Apollo 1 tragedy in January of 1967, the United States would not fly another manned space mission until October 1968. That flight, Apollo 7, was a highly successful earth-orbital mission in which the new Block II Apollo Command Module was thoroughly flight-proven.
Notwithstanding Apollo 7’s accomplishments, only 14 months remained for the United States to meet the national goal of achieving a manned lunar landing before the end of the 20th century’s 7th decade. The view held by many in late 1968 was that an already daunting task was now unachievable in the narrow window of time that remained to accomplish it.
The pessimism about reaching the Moon before the end of the decade was easy to understand. The Saturn V moon rocket had not been man-rated. The Lunar Module had not flown. Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) was untried. Men had not even so much as orbited the Moon. Yet, history would record that the United States would find a way to accomplish that which had never before been achieved.
George Low, manager of NASA’s Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, came up with the idea. Low proposed that the first manned flight of the Saturn V be a trip all the way to the Moon. It was something that Low referred to as the “All-Up Testing” concept. The newly-conceived mission would be flown in December 1968 near Christmas time.
While initially seen as too soon and too risky by many in NASA’s management hierarchy, Low’s bold proposal was ultimately accepted as the only way to meet the national lunar landing goal. Yes, there was additional risk. However, the key technologies were ready, the astronauts were willing, and the risk was acceptable.
Apollo 8 lifted-off from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday, 21 December 1968 at 12:51 hours UTC. The crew consisted of NASA astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr. and William A. Anders. Their target – the Moon – was 220,000 miles away.
After a 69-hour outbound journey, Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit on Tuesday, 24 December 1968 – Christmas Eve. The Apollo 8 crew photographed the lunar surface, studied the geologic features of its terrain, and made other observations from a 60-nautical mile circular orbit. The spacecraft circled the Moon 10 times in slightly over 20 hours.
For many, the most poignant and memorable event in Apollo 8’s historic journey occurred on Christmas Eve night when each of the flight crew took turns reading from the Book of Genesis in the Holy Bible. The solemnity of the moment was evident in the voices of the astronauts. They had seen both the Moon and the Earth from a perspective that none before them had. Fittingly, they expressed humble reverence for the Creator of the Universe on the anniversary of the birth of the Redeemer of mankind.
Apollo 8 departed lunar orbit a little over 89 hours into the mission. Following a nearly 58-hour inbound trip, Apollo 8 reentered the earth’s atmosphere at 36,221 feet per second on Friday, 27 December 1968. The first manned super-orbital reentry was performed in total darkness. It was entirely successful as Apollo 8 landed less than 1 nautical mile from its target in the Pacific Ocean. The USS YORKTOWN effected recovery of the weary astronauts and their trustworthy spacecraft. Mission total elapsed time was 147 hours and 42 seconds.
The year 1968 was a tumultuous one for the United States of America. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. American military blood flowed on the battlefields of Vietnam and civilian blood was let in countless demonstrations taking place in the nation’s cities. The ill-posed sexual revolution continued to erode the country’s social and moral moorings.
But, as is so often the case, an event from the realm of flight, now newly extended to lunar space, reminded us of our higher nature and potential. For a too brief moment, Apollo 8 put our collective purpose for being here into sharp focus. Perhaps a short phrase in a telegram sent to Frank Borman from someone he had never met said it best: “You saved 1968!”
However, looking through the lens of history, we now know that Apollo 8 did much more than end the penultimate year of the 1960’s on a positive note. Indeed, it may be said that Apollo 8 saved the entire Apollo Program.
One-hundred and seventeen years ago to the day, the Wright Flyer became the first aircraft in history to achieve powered flight. The site of this historic event was Kill Devil Hills located near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Americans Wilbur and Orville Wright began their legendary aeronautical careers in 1899. In a matter of just four short years, the brothers would go from complete aeronautical novices to inventors and pilots of the world’s first successful powered aircraft. Neither man attended college nor received even a high school diploma.
The Wright Flyer measured roughly 21 feet in length and had a wing span of approximately 40 feet. The biplane aircraft had an empty weight of 605 lbs. Power was provided by a single 12 horsepower, 4-cylinder engine that drove twin 8.5 foot, two-blade propellers.
The Flyer made a powered take-off run along a 60-foot wooden guide rail. The aircraft was mounted on a two-wheel dolly that rode along the track and was jettisoned at lift-off. The Flyer pilot lay prone in the middle of the lower wing. Twin elevator and rudder surfaces provided pitch and yaw control, respectively. Roll control was via differential wing warping.
The Wright Brothers had come close to achieving a successful powered flight with the Wright Flyer on Monday, 14 December 1903. Wilbur, who had won the coin toss, was the pilot for the initial attempt. However, the Flyer stalled and hit the ground sharply just after take-off. Wilbur was unhurt, but repair of the damaged aircraft would take two days.
The next attempt flight took place on Thursday, 17 December 1903. The weather was terrible. Windy and rainy. Even after the rain abated, the wind continued to blow in excess of 20 mph. The Wrights decided to fly anyway. It was now Orville’s turn as command pilot.
Orville took his position on the Flyer and was quickly launched into the wind. Once airborne, the aircraft proved difficult to control as it porpoised up and down along the flight path. Nonetheless, Orville kept the Flyer in the air for 12 seconds before landing 120 feet from the take-off point. Other than a damaged skid, the aircraft was intact and the pilot unhurt. Powered flight was a reality!
Three more flights followed on that momentous occasion as the two brothers alternated piloting assignments. The fourth flight was the longest in both time aloft and distance flown. With Wilbur at the controls, the Wright Flyer flew for 59 seconds and landed 852 feet from the take-off point.
The Wright Brothers father, Milton, would soon learn of the epic events that December day in North Carolina. Orville’s verbatim Western Union telegram message sent to Dayton, Ohio read:
Success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 [sic] seconds inform press home Christmas.
Sixty-seven years ago this month, USAF Major Charles E. Yeager set an unofficial world speed record of 1,650 mph (Mach 2.44) in the Bell X-1A flight research aircraft. In the process, the legendary test pilot very nearly lost his life when the aircraft departed controlled flight shortly after rocket motor burnout.
The USAF/Bell X-1A was a second generation X-aircraft intended to explore flight beyond Mach 2. It measured 35.5 feet in length and had a wing span of 28 feet. Gross take-off weight was 16,500 pounds.
Like its XS-1 forebear, the X-1A was powered by an XLR-11 rocket motor which produced a maximum sea level thrust of 6,000 lbs. The XLR-11 burned 9,200 pounds of propellants (alcohol and liquid oxygen) in roughly 270 seconds of operation.
Departing Edwards Air Force Base, California on Saturday, 12 December 1953, Yeager and the X-1A (S/N 48-1384) were carried to altitude by a USAF B-29 mothership (S/N 45-21800 ). X-1A drop occurred at 240 knots and 30,500 feet. Within ten seconds, Yeager lit off three of the XLR-11’s four rocket chambers and started to climb upstairs.
Yeager fired the 4th chamber of the XLR-11 passing through 43,000 feet and initiated a pushover at 62,000 feet. The maneuver was completed at 76,000 feet; higher than planned. In level flight now and traveling at Mach 1.9, the X-1A continued to accelerate in the thin air of the stratosphere.
Yeager quickly exceeded Scott Crossfield’s briefly-held Mach 2.005 record set on Friday, 20 November 1953. However, he now had to be very careful. Wind tunnel testing had revealed that the X-1A would be neutrally stable in the directional channel as it approached Mach 2.3.
As Yeager cut the throttle around Mach 2.44, the X-1A started an uncommanded roll to the left. Yeager quickly countered with aileron and rudder. The X-1A then rapidly rolled right. Full aileron and opposite rudder failed to control the roll. After 8 to 10 complete revolutions, the aircraft ceased rolling, but was now inverted.
In an instant, the X-1A started rolling left and then 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. Normal acceleration varied between plus-8 and negative 1.3 G’s. 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.
The X-1A held the distinction of being the fastest-flying of the early X-aircraft until the Bell X-2 reached 1,900 mph (Mach 2.87) in July of 1956. Yeager’s harrowing experience in December 1953 would be his last flight at the controls of a rocket-powered X-aircraft. For his record-setting X-1A mission, Chuck Yeager was awarded the 1953 Harmon Trophy. The intrepid airman made his final flight on Monday, 07 December 2020 at the age of 97.
Fifty-seven years ago today, USAF Major Robert W. Smith zoomed the rocket-powered USAF/Lockheed NF-104A to an unofficial world record altitude of 120,800 feet. This mark still stands as the highest altitude ever achieved by a United States aircraft from a runway take-off.
A zoom maneuver is one in which aircraft kinetic energy (speed) is traded for potential energy (altitude). In doing so, an aircraft can soar well beyond its maximum steady, level altitude (service ceiling). The zoom maneuver has both military and civilian flight operations value.
The USAF/Lockheed NF-104A was designed to provide spaceflight-like training experience for test pilots attending the Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The type was a modification of the basic F-104A Starfighter aircraft. Three copies of the NF-104A were produced (S/N’s 56-0756, 56-0760 and 56-0762). It was the ultimate zoom flight platform.
In addition to a stock General Electric J79-GE-3 turbojet, the NF-104A was powered by a Rocketdyne LR121-NA-1 rocket motor. The J79 generated 15,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner and burned JP-4. The LR-121 produced 6,000 pounds of thrust and burned a combination of JP-4 and 90% hydrogen peroxide. Rocket motor burn time was on the order of 90 seconds.
The NF-104A was kinematically capable of zooming to altitudes approaching 125,000 feet. As such, it was a combined aircraft, rocket, and spacecraft. The pilot had to blend aerodynamic and reaction controls in the low dynamic pressure environment near the zoom apex. He was also required to fly in a full pressure suit for survival at altitudes beyond the Armstrong Line.
On Friday, 06 December 1963, Bob Smith took-off from Edwards and headed west for the Pacific Ocean. Out over the sea, he changed heading by 180 degrees in preparation for the zoom run-in. At a point roughly 100 miles out, Smith then accelerated the NF-104A (S/N 56-0760) along a line that would take him just north of the base. Arriving at Mach 2.4 and 37,000 feet, Smith then initiated a 3.75-g pull to a 70-degree aircraft pitch angle. Turbojet and rocket were at full throttle.
Things happened very quickly at this point. Smith brought the J79 turbojet out of afterburner at 65,000 feet and then moved the throttle to the idle detent at 80,000 feet. The rocket motor burned-out around 90,000 feet. Smith controlled the aircraft (now spacecraft) over the top of the zoom using 3-axis reaction controls. The NF-104A’s arcing parabolic trajectory subjected him to 73 seconds of weightlessness. Peak altitude achieved was 120,800 feet above mean sea level.
On the back side of the zoom profile, Bob Smith restarted the windmilling J79 turbojet and set-up for landing at Edwards. He touched down on the main runway and rolled out uneventfully. Total mission time from brake-release to wheels-stop was approximately 25 minutes.
Much more could be said about the NF-104A and its unique mission. Suffice it to say here that two of the aircraft ultimately went on to serve in the ARPS from 1968 to 1971. The only remaining aircraft today is 56-0760 which sits on a pole in front of the USAF Test Pilot School (TPS) at Edwards.
Bob Smith went on to make many other noteworthy contributions to aviation and his nation. Having flown the F-86 Sabre in Korea, he volunteered to fly combat in Viet Nam in his 40th year. Stationed at Korat AFB in Thailand, he commanded the 34th Fighter Squadron of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing. Smith flew 100 combat missions in the fabled F-105D Thunderchief; many of which involved the infamous Pack VI route in North Viet Nam.
Bob Smith was a true American hero. Like so many of the airmen of his day, Smith was a man whose dedication, service, and courage went largely unnoticed and underappreciated by his fellow countrymen. Bob Smith’s final flight came just 3 months shy of his 82nd birthday on Thursday, 19 August 2010.
Sixty-four years ago today, the No. 1 USAF/Bell X-2 rocket-powered flight research aircraft reached a record speed of 2,094 mph with USAF Captain Milburn G. “Mel” Apt at the controls. However, triumph quickly turned to tragedy when the aircraft departed controlled flight, crashed to destruction, and Apt perished.
Mel Apt’s historic achievement came about because of the Air Force’s desire to have the X-2 reach Mach 3 before turning it over to the National Advisory Committee For Aeronautics (NACA) for further flight research testing. Just 20 days prior to Apt’s flight in the X-2, USAF Captain Iven C. Kincheloe, Jr. had flown the aircraft to a record altitude of 126,200 feet.
On Thursday, 27 September 1956, Apt and the X-2 (Ship No. 1, S/N 46-674) dropped away from the USAF B-50 mothership at 30,000 feet and 225 mph. Despite the fact that Mel Apt had never flown an X-aircraft, he executed the flight profile exactly as briefed. In addition, the X-2′s twin-chamber XLR-25 rocket motor burned propellant 12.5 seconds longer than planned. Both of these factors contributed to the aircraft attaining a speed in excess of 2,000 mph.
Apt and his aerial steed hit a peak Mach number of 3.2 at an altitude of 65,000 feet. Based on previous flight tests as well as flight simulator sessions, Apt knew that the X-2 had to slow to roughly Mach 2.4 before turning the aircraft back to Edwards. This was due to degraded directional stability, control reversal, and aerodynamic coupling issues that adversely affected the X-2 at higher Mach numbers.
However, Mel Apt was now faced with a difficult decision. If he waited for the X-2 to slow to Mach 2.4 before initiating a turn back to Edwards Air Force Base, he quite likely would not have enough energy and therefore range to reach Rogers Dry Lake. On the other hand, if he decided to initiate the turn back to Edwards at high Mach number, he risked having the X-2 depart controlled flight. Flying in a coffin corner of the X-2’s flight envelope, Apt opted for the latter.
As Apt increased the aircraft’s angle-of-attack, the X-2 departed controlled flight and subjected him to a brutal pounding. Aircraft lateral acceleration varied between +6 and -6 g’s. The battered pilot ultimately found himself in a subsonic, inverted spin at 40,000 feet. At this point, Apt effected pyrotechnic separation of the X-2′s forebody which contained the cockpit and a drogue parachute.
X-2 forebody separation was clean and the drogue parachute deployed properly. However, Apt still needed to bail out of the descending unit and deploy his personal parachute to complete the emergency egress process. However, such was not to be. Mel Apt ran out of time, altitude, and luck. The young pilot lost his life when the X-2 forebody from which he was trying to escape impacted the ground at a speed of one hundred and twenty miles an hour.
Mel Apt’s flight to Mach 3.2 established a record that stood until the X-15 exceeded that mark in August 1960. However, the price for doing so was very high. The USAF lost a brave test pilot and the lone remaining X-2 on that fateful day in September 1956. The mishap also ended the USAF X-2 Program. NACA never did conduct flight research with the X-2.
However, for a few terrifying moments, Mel Apt was the fastest man alive.
Sixty-four years ago today, 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).
Kincheloe’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”.
Thirty-five years ago this month, 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.