THIS USED TO BE THE FUTURE: Proto-space shuttles

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Yesterday we talked about the abandoned Soviet lunar program. Today we'll talk about a needlessly-abandoned American space project. There's tons more interesting info under the jump, so stick with me. Now, contrary to popular belief, the Space Shutte is *not* the first reusable space craft. That honor and distinction go to the X-15:

From 1959 to 1968, the three X-15s flew 199 missions all together. 13 of the missions went above 50 miles altitude, which is the US definition for Space Flight, and two of them went above 100 kilometers, which is the international definition of Space Flight. A slightly modified one flew to 68 miles(!) which is still the world altitude record for an aircraft (not counting the shuttle). Details about the program:

Now, the X-15 was sexy and cool, but it was obvious that it was just the first step on the space-plane ladder. They needed an orbital spacecraft, obviously, so the USAF designed the X-20. Nicknamed the "DynaSoar" (For dynamic soaring), it was intended to be launched on top of a rocket like this do from one to three orbits, and come back down. Here's some animation from Dan Roam's old "Deep Cold" website of what it would have looked like:

There's a slight poetic licence taken here - the front windows would have been covered by a heat shield in orbit, that would have been ejected after re-entry, but otherwise this is pretty spot-on. Note that it keeps the final stage of the rocket attached to it in orbit as a Service Module. That would have been cast off before re-entry. Here's another video to give you a good idea what it would have looked like.

Again there's a bit of poetic licence taken here - the X-20 was never designed to dock with anything, the space station is a total fantasy that Mr. Roam made up, and of course the heat shields over the front window are missing. Still, I think this captures how damn cool the concept was - and of course I love that song.

What makes the X-20 more interesting than most paper studies of unrealized projects is that this was actually very far along in development when it was cancelled. They'd built mockups, done wind-tunnel testing, and they were just a few months away from drop-testing a full-sized glider model to train pilots when the project was canned. The USAF was very excited about this, and envisioned it's use as a research vehicle, as a surveilance aircraft, as a space-fighter, and ultimately as the forbearer of a whole line of X-20-derived space shuttles that would be larger, and have 2 to 4-man crews, presumably shuttling people to and from a USAF space station. Here's the unveiling of the X-20 for the news media:

So what happened?

Well, essentially the whole thing devolved in to a turf war between NASA and the USAF. The Air Force didn't care about research that much, and was content to let NASA have that aspect of space, but NASA feared competition from another government agency, and whined about it incessantly to Congress. They were particularly concerned that the USAF program, which was aggressive and designed for a rapid turnaround time between flights, would make NASA look bad. The Democratic Administration at the time was really sold on the idea of a peaceful civilian space agency to distinguish it from the military Soviet space program. (Though NASA was almost entirely staffed by ex-military types, and actual officers on loan from the various services, so it was Civilian in name only), and they felt that having a military space program would undercut NASA's propaganda value, so, ultimately, the insisted the USAF shut their project down, and the X-20 was abandoned.

The irony is that if the DynaSoar *hadn't* been cancelled, we probably never would have built the Space Shuttle. Why? Because the Space Shuttle has ended up being amazingly difficult, expensive, and dangerous to operate. Intended for economic access to space, it's a flying coffin that's killed 14 people, and which costs twice as much to operate as the 'wasteful' Saturn V, while only carrying about 1/3rd as much payload to orbit. It's a turd that probably would have been avoided if NASA had the X-20 to look at for practical information about how orbital space planes work. But since they really had no infomation, we ended up spending the last 30 years learning about it the hard way.

The first space flight of the X-20 was scheduled for january 1966. Astronaut James Wood was shechuled to make the first manned flight in July of that same year. Alas, none of that ever happened.

This was the first - but certainly not the last - time the Air Force would be screwed over by NASA

More information about the X-20
the Deep Cold website