Vintage Space Fun Fact: Animals in Space Before NASA

For most people, early biological testing in space brings to mind Ham the chimp, angrily trying to bit any hand that came near him after his suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket. But Ham was launched on January 31, 1961, nearly a decade after the first monkeys survive surborbital flights. Biological testing in space goes back even further. In the late 1940s, fruit flies became the first animals to survive exposure to spaceflight conditions. (Left, Ham ready for launch in 1961. The system in his capsule designed to reward or shock him for his inflight performance malfunctioned and he was shocked for pushing the right buttons. He was, understandably, irate.)  Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: Animals in Space Before NASA”

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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”

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”

Rogallo After Gemini

In a previous post, I looked at the Rogallo paraglider wing landing system and its failed development as part of NASA’s Gemini program. I also mentioned that the landing system didn’t disappear right away. After its cancellation from Gemini, NASA attempted to salvage its research and incorporate the landing system in Apollo and its follow-up programs. The US Air Force also expressed interest in including the Rogallo wing into its own space program. Regardless of the extra attention, it would seem that the paraglider was doomed to never leave the ground. (Left, a model Gemini capsule with Rogallo wing in a wind tunnel test. 1961.) Continue reading “Rogallo After Gemini”

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”