Monday, September 5, 2011

Before the HTV failed, Dyna-Soar was canceled

Yeah, I know I have been writing a lot about aviation lately. Sue me. I have immunity under the Airplane Dork Act of 1998.

So here's the deal. The Prompt Global Strike project still hasn't quite figured out how to successfully guide a really fast, really high assault glider to a target anywhere on earth. That's an ambitious program.

But 50 years ago, the U.S. was working on something even more ambitious: A manned version.

The idea was to put a fighter-sized spacecraft at the top of a Titan booster and launch it into a ballistic, sub-orbital trajectory. It had reaction control thrusters that could steer it a bit in space. But the cleverness was in its lifting-body design, which allowed it to not simply fall to Earth, but actually generate enough lift to "skip" off the atmosphere, extending range and bleeding off speed until it arrived at a desired landing area.

It was called dynamic soaring, and that meant the project got the somewhat overly clever name Dyna-Soar.

This spaceplane was intended to be military all the way, either attacking satellites, performing reconnaissance or even bombing missions. A small cargo bay allowed for a variety of payloads. But if they had pulled it off the ramifications down the road would have been tremendous, providing technology for safe, super-fast intercontinental travel. The materials science alone benefitted the aerospace industry at the time, and much of the research went into the design of the Space Shuttle.

A man, a plane, a mostly fictitious scene.

But in 1963, after six years and amid arguments over what rockets should be used to launch it and what its specific mission would be, it was canceled. The astronauts assigned to the program (including Neil Armstrong) went off to do different things, like land on the moon. And Dyna-Soar was no more.

It fascinates me to think about the impact this would have had if it had been tested out and perfected. But like many experimental programs, its lasting legacy is solely in related projects that came later. And, of course, my imagination.

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