The Life and Times of Don McCusker

I got an email from a reader a few months ago who was particularly pleased that an old post mentioned his father, Don McCusker. McCusker was a North American Aviation test pilot and one of the few men to fly the full scale Gemini manned Test Tow Vehicle (TTV), the full scale Gemini spacecraft mated to the paraglider wing. Some research in unusual places, and a fascinating correspondence with his wife Helena, gave me fairly good picture of McCusker’s life. So while my research isn’t quite finished, I thought I’d write a short overview of the very interesting life of a test pilot that almost no one knows about. (Left, the Martin-built B57 that was used in research and development tests of a guidance systems. Don McCusker is on top, at the time serving as manager of the simulated MACE program. USAF.)

Continue reading “The Life and Times of Don McCusker”

A History of the Dyna-Soar

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing some research into the USAF Dyna-Soar or X-20 program, and its story is much more interesting than I realized. Like many of the unrealized programs of the early space age, its impact extends far beyond its immediate application. Dyna-Soar is typically referenced in passing as an upgraded version of the X-15, an aircraft capable of achieving orbiting, but this connection is misleading. Dyna-Soar came from an entirely different place than the X-15, and its story is much more complicated than a simple cancelled research program. (A worker inspects a full-scale mockup of Dyna-Soar. Reader’s Digest described the vehicle as a cross between a porpoise and a manta ray. Early 1960s. Photo: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.) Continue reading “A History of the Dyna-Soar”

How the Airplane got its Shape

Part of what fascinates me about the history of technology is how major pieces – such as spacecraft – come to look like they do. But the more time I spend looking at spacecraft, the more I find I’m interested in the development of aircraft. Both fly, albeit very differently, but their histories are inextricably linked. Particularly when you consider that until getting into space became an immediate need in the late 1950s, spaceflight was on track to take airplane-inspired vehicles into orbit. I’ve always been fascinated by airplanes as wonderfully complex machines that humans interact with without really thinking, and so I thought I’d begin a look at the design decisions of spaceflight with some of the design decisions that led to modern aircraft design. If nothing else, the rapid development from humans stuck firmly on the ground to trans-oceanic flights is pretty amazing. (Pictured, an NACA Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane with a model wing suspended beneath it. 1921.) Continue reading “How the Airplane got its Shape”

In Support of the X-15

I’ve recently delved back into the X-15 again. But instead of focussing on the aircraft and its role in America’s move into space, I’ve been looking into the structure of the program as a whole. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, at the manpower involved each flight. Like the impressive number of men on hand to recover a single Mercury astronaut, each X-15 flight had a substantial crew both in the air and on the ground at multiple points – another similarity shared with Mercury recover efforts.  (Left, workers secure the X-15 after landing.)

In two previous posts, I’ve looked at the dual nature of the X-15. It was at once a cutting edge research aircraft as well as a precursor to orbiting space planes; the space shuttle’s roots in the X-15 is a connection I’ve previously pointed to. A closer look at the test program reveals just how complicated flying the unique vehicle was. During a single flight, the X-15 acted like a traditional jet, a spaceplane, and a glider. It accelerated to speeds upwards of Mach 5 in a minute of powered flight before landing without power on the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Each flight lasted on average less than ten minutes. A successful flight demanded a lot happen in a very short time span. Continue reading “In Support of the X-15”

Mapping Vintage Space

Regular readers of Vintage Space are doubtless aware that I have a tendency to link newer posts to older ones. This reflects the interrelation of all the topics I have (and will) discuss in this blog. I find this era of history to be complex (as most big historical eras are) with aspects that can be treated independently, but need to be contextualized by one another.

And so I thought I would begin mapping Vintage Space, building a sort of narrative roadmap that will give the more casual reader a better idea of where in the history of space and spaceflight each individual episode belongs. This is in no way a complete chronology, but rather a framework for my content. (Pictured, the sun rise above the gulf of Mexico as seen from orbit by Apollo 7. 1968.) Continue reading “Mapping Vintage Space”

The X-15 as Research Aircraft

In a previous post, I offered a brief summary of the X-15 program in which I highlighted its features that enabled it to take on the designation of a ‘space plane’. I also mentioned that its nature is two-fold; it is at once a space plane and a research aircraft. (Left, an engineer runs wind tunnel tests on a scale model of an X-15.)

For many involved with the X-15 program, the aircraft was the first space plane – it’s record altitude was above the 50-mile limit of space. The aircraft was poised to be the first in a line of orbit-capable space planes. The proposed follow-up X-20 program built on the basic space plane design. But as the space race gathered steam, the X-15 took a backseat to, and was eventually eclipsed by, the Mercury ballistic capsule. Thus, in the wake of Mercury’s success, the X-15 took on a second nature – the last in a long line of research aircraft. Continue reading “The X-15 as Research Aircraft”

The X-15 as Space Plane

A number of my previous posts have drawn attention to some of the central aspects in the history and development of land landings in the early space age. But the drawbacks of splashdowns and hazards of the Soviets’ method of ejection represent only a fraction of the story. A myriad of factors contributed to the decision of landing methods; in the United States no factor was perhaps as influential and tied to landing methods as the shape and design of the spacecraft. The X-15, which I’ve previously mentioned in passing, deserves more attention in this discussion of the link between spacecraft design and landing methods. In the 1950s, the X-15 represented space plane designs as an early contender for the design of spacecraft. (Pictured is the nose of an X-15 under the wing of a B-52 launch plane.) Continue reading “The X-15 as Space Plane”