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.) [Read more…]

Carnival of Space #211

Another week ends another Carnival of Space begins! A lot of great writers bringing great articles to the table, so let’s get started. (My unrelated fun photo offering: X-15 pilots enjoy a lighter moment during the program – I guess you can only clown around so much when dealing with this level of technology. Mid-late 1960s.)

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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. [Read more…]

A Return to the Right Stuff?

In previous posts I’ve talked about the changing culture of risk at NASA and about the qualities and characteristics that make astronauts stand apart from the rest of the population. Recently, I’ve begun to notice a correlation between these two facets of spaceflight. In the 1960s when the astronauts were test pilots routinely facing death, NASA took more risks. In recent years as the astronaut corps has grown to include more scientists as well as everyday people like school teachers, the missions have become more routine – low Earth orbit has become a comfort zone throughout the shuttle program. (Left, the Mercury astronauts. 1959.)

Over the past half-century, NASA’s astronauts have gone from heavy drinking and fast driving fighter jocks riding in cobbled together capsules to engineers and scientists in sophisticated spacecraft. Tied up in this shift, is there an expectation that NASA will never let anything bad happen to its astronauts? Is the growing need for safety potentially standing in the way of bold manned missions that assume the same risk as 1968s Apollo 8? [Read more…]