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astronautix.com US Spaceplanes


Spacecraft: Space Cruiser.

In the first half of the 1970's the US Navy began serious development work on a space cruiser - a single-place crewed space interceptor intended for "scientific and military applications". The Navy was specifically interested in knocking out Soviet satellites used to track the location of US warships. The space cruiser was to have been launched into orbit by a Poseidon missile from a ballistic missile submarine. This would allow clandestine launch, interception, inspection, and destruction of enemy satellites out of range of their tracking and launch warning systems. The mission was to be accomplished in one orbit, two maximum, before the Soviet tracking network would even know it had occurred. The space cruiser was 8.08 m long, had a gross mass of 4500 kg, and used the re-entry shape developed for the Poseidon MIRV warheads. 17 engines were mounted in the base - perhaps a plug nozzle design for maximum specific impulse in orbit with minimum engine length. Alternate launch platforms considered were land launch by MX Peacekeeper ICBM or air launch from a 747.

Recovery of a payload from space using the N-wing parafoil was demonstrated in classified tests. The project was evidently canceled, along with USAF black spaceplane projects, by the mid-1970's when the military was forced to accept use of the space shuttle for their military missions.

The configuration was released in 1983 with a terse statement that it was a contemporary DARPA study.


Spacecraft: X-34.

Spacecraft: X-37. The Boeing X-37 Space Maneuver Vehicle is a subscale version of a putative USAF 21st Century spaceplane. (related to X-40).

Spacecraft: X-40. Boeing X-40A Experimental Space Maneuver Vehicle was built to test landing technologies for the putative USAF 21st Century spaceplane. (related to X-37).

Spacecraft: MX-324. First U.S. military rocket-powered plane; built by Northrop.

Spacecraft: Convair Shuttlecraft. Convair concept for a winged shuttle vehicle, early 1960's.

Spacecraft: Astrocommuter.

The Lockheed Astrocommuter was to use an early version of the Saturn 1-B as a launch vehicle. Viewing for the pilot was be provided by a periscope-like device, and it was intended for use as the logistics vehicle for the Lockheed 1963 Space Station. Although the engineer who designed it was confident that the vehicle could be developed and made operational in a short ammount of time, his project never gained much interest from NASA, the USAF, or even from his superiors at Lockheed.


Spacecraft: Boost Glide Re-entry Vehicle.

The Boost Glide Re-entry Vehicle investigated related technological problems, particularly hypersonic manoeuvring after re-entry into the atmosphere. The test was flown on 26 February 1968 from Vandenberg AFB, California to the area of Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean. It was launched from an Atlas missile booster and served to provide much data on hypersonic manoeuvring flight characteristics. This data was of great value in developing later manoeuvring re-entry vehicles. Upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, flight control was achieved through the use of the aft trim flares and a reaction jet system commanded from an on-board inertial guidance system instead of by aerodynamic controls.


Spacecraft: X-24C.

As the X-15 program wound down in the mid-1960's, NASA and the USAF considered follow-on hypersonic test aircraft. The USAF had significant classified work underway, while NASA Langley undertook two study programs: HYFAC (Hypersonic Research Facility) for a Mach 12 aircraft, and HSRA (High Speed Research Aircraft) for a Mach 8 aircraft. The Air Force revealed it had intentions to build a Mach 3 to 5 test vehicle, and an Incremental Growth Vehicle which would gradually be taken from Mach 4.5 to Mach 9. By July 1974 NASA and the Air Force selected the FDL-8 lifting body configuration. Two versions were proposed: one with cheek air intakes and air-breathing engines, and one with the XLR-99 rocket engine of the X-15. Two of these X-24C NHFRF (National Hypersonic Flight Research Facility) aircraft was to be built under a $ 200 million budet. They would fly 200 flights over ten years, reaching a maximum speed of Mach 8 and being able to cruise at over Mach 6 for 40 seconds. By September 1977 (officially) budget overruns were apparent and NASA agreed to cancel further X-24C work. But given the stories of similar USAF test aircraft in the 1980's, perhaps the project merely went deep black.


Spacecraft: X-30.

Spacecraft: HGV.

The Hypersonic Glide Vehicle was a USAF project discussed openly in 1987 to 1988, which may have flown as a black project in 1992-1993. A model of the General Dynamics concept for the vehicle was shown at the Air Force Association show in 1987. Martin Marietta was an associated or competing contractor. The HGV resurrected the Dynasoar boost-glide bomber concept of the 1950's. A booster would accelerate the HGV to Mach 18 and an altitude of 80 km. It would then enter a long glide, coming over its selected target at Mach 5 at 30 km altitude. An HGV launched by a Minuteman would have a range of 15,000 km; air-launched from a B-1 or B-52, a 7,400 km range.

Advanced materials and lightweight avionics were expected to make it possible for the ca. 2 tonne HGV to have a useful payload. These might include an interceptor using Raytheon's LORAINE (Long-Range Interceptor Experiment) phased-array radar; or a surface attack missile using Loral air-to-surface guidance concepts developed for the USAF Manoeuvring Re-entry Vehicle (MaRV) program. In 1987 the USAF was considering a five-year, $400 million program ending in four Minuteman-boosted HGV flights from Vandenberg AFB. Reports as late as 1992 indicated the tests may have occurred under the Have Space project, with the air-launched version referred to as the HGV and the ground-launched version as the Strategic Boost Glide Vehicle.

The NASA Hyper-X air-launched scramjet experiment may owe some of its launch vehicle underpinnings to HGV.

Many thanks to Bill Sweetman for pointing out the existence of this project.


Spacecraft: HL-42.

The 1997 HL-42 design (HL = horizontal landing) stemmed directly from the HL-20 lifting body vehicle concept studied at Langley Research Center from 1983. It was a 42 percent dimensional scale up of the HL-20, hence the designation HL-42, and also happened to have a body length of 42 feet. It retained key design and operational features of the HL-20 design. The applicable HL-20 design data base included extensive in-house aerodynamic, flight simulation and abort, and human factors research as well as results of contracted studies with Rockwell, Lockheed (Skunk Works), and Boeing in defining efficient manufacturing and operations design and auto-land capabilities.

The HL-42 reference vehicle was a reusable, lifting body spacecraft designed to be placed into low-Earth orbit by an expendable booster. Launch escape motors for use in the event of an abort were attached to the expendable launch vehicle adapter at the base of the HL-42. The spacecraft had a dry mass of 13,365 kg, an on-orbit mass of 21,093 kg, and a launch mass (with booster adapters and launch escape system) of 28,725 kg.


Spacecraft: X-43.

An experimental hypersonic flight-research program, called Hyper-X, will be among the most significant projects underway at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California., during the next few years.

The multi-year NASA/industry Hyper-X program seeks to demonstrate airframe-integrated, "air-breathing" engine technologies that promise to increase payload capacity for future vehicles, including hypersonic aircraft (faster than Mach 5) and reusable space launchers.

Conventional rocket engines are powered by mixing fuel with oxygen, both of which are traditionally carried onboard the aircraft. The Hyper-X vehicles, designated X-43A, will carry only their fuel - hydrogen - while the oxygen needed to burn the fuel will come from the atmosphere. By eliminating the need to carry oxygen aboard the aircraft, future hypersonic vehicles will have room to carry more payload. Another unique aspect of the X-43A vehicle is that the body of the aircraft itself forms critical elements of the engine, with the forebody acting as the intake for the airflow and the aft section serving as the nozzle. These technologies will be put to the test during a rigorous flight-research program at NASA Dryden.


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Last update 28 March 2001.
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© Mark Wade, 2001 .