Twelve years ago this month, the NASA X-43A scramjet-powered flight research vehicle reached a record speed of over 4,600 mph (Mach 6.83). The test marked the first time in the annals of aviation that a flight-scale scramjet accelerated an aircraft in the hypersonic Mach number regime.
NASA initiated a technology demonstration program known as HYPER-X in 1996. The fundamental 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 nearly 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 second flight of the HYPER-X program took place on Saturday, 27 March 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 20:40 UTC. The aircraft then headed for the Pacific Ocean launch point located just west of San Nicholas Island.
At 21:59:58 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 about 90 seconds to reach a speed of slightly over Mach 7.
Following rocket motor burnout and a brief coast period, the HXRV (X-43A) successfully separated from the Pegasus booster at 94,069feet and Mach 6.95. The HXRV scramjet was operative by Mach 6.83. Supersonic combustion and thrust production were successfully achieved. Total power-on flight 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 450 nautical miles due west of its launch location. Total flight time was approximately 15 minutes.
The HYPER-X Program made history that day in late March 2004. Supersonic combustion and thrust production of an airframe-integrated scramjet were 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 airbreathing aircraft and earned a Guinness World Record for its efforts.