The Navaho Missile and Its Supersonic Stand-In

The X-10 supersonic drone that proved the flight characteristics of the Navaho missile. Credit: USAF Museum

The X-10 supersonic drone that proved the flight characteristics of the Navaho missile. Credit: USAF Museum

In 1945, the US Army Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics contracted the Bell Aircraft Company to build an experimental supersonic aircraft. Taking its designation from its “experimental supersonic” description, the XS-1 – later renamed the X-1 – took to the air in 1946. A year later, Chuck Yeager flew the aircraft on the history’s first level supersonic flight.

The X-1 marked the beginning of the X-series of experimental aircraft. Only a few of each model was built, typically with the sole purpose of gathering data that couldn’t be collected in wind tunnels or with small-scale models. And X-planes were usually piloted; having a man at the controls would give engineers valuable perspective on how an aircraft handled in flight. An early exception to this piloted rule was the X-10. It was a drone, and unpiloted stand-in for North American Aviation’s Navaho missile that allowed engineers to study the weapon’s flight characteristics. And while the Navaho never flew, its history, as well as the X-10′s, is absolutely fascinating. I dug into the Navaho missile’s story for DVICE, and focused a little more closely on the X-10 supersonic drone for Motherboard.

The U-2 With Fictitious NASA Markings

A stunning picture of the U-2 with fictitious NASA markings. Presumably sometime in mid-1960. Credit: via cloudsovercuba.com

A stunning picture of the U-2 with fictitious NASA markings. Presumably sometime in mid-1960. It’s worth clicking on this one to see it full resolution. Credit: via cloudsovercuba.com

Researching the U-2 spy plane the other day, I came across this stunning picture of the aircraft in silhouette. For the first time I noticed a yellow NASA stripe and an ID number – 55741 – on the tail, the same markings the agency put on the X-15’s tail when it assumed control of that program in 1958. Idly interested in NASA’s history with the U-2, I searched for records of the aircraft by its ID number. Turns out, these NASA markings were put on the aircraft entirely for show.   [Read more...]

Scott Crossfield’s Supersonic Bellyache

The Douglas Skyrocket mounted to its launch plane in August of 1953. Credit: NASA/Dryden Flight Research Center

Friendly interservice rivalries in the United States aren’t uncommon, and they were just as standard in the 1950s. Particularly among pilots who were always trying to one-up each other as it was. At Edwards Air Force Base, where the hottest planes were put through their paces, things got particularly competitive as men tried to score records as much for themselves as for their branch of the service. Between Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager and Navy aviator Scott Crossfield, there was a battle to be the first to Mach 2.

[Read more...]

When Yeager Eased Through the Sound Barrier

Yeager in the cockpit of the Bell XS-1. Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

It’s an interesting historic parallel. Weather permitting, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner is set to break Joe Kittinger’s high altitude jump record this morning by sky diving from 120,000 feet. On the way down he’s going to break the sound barrier without the benefit of an aerodynamic shell like a fuselage, 65 years to the day that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. On October 14, 1947, Yeager ushered in a new era of supersonic aviation where faster planes started reaching the fringes of space.  [Read more...]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Crossfield’s Worst Landing

I stumbled across this picture the other day and was reminded of the story. I thought it was worth retelling. This is the result of Crossfield’s first landing in an F-100 – I’d recommend clicking for the full resolution version. Credit: NASA

Scott Crossfield held that every pilot had a specialty. In his case it was landings, specifically landings without power often called dead stick landing. So how did Crossfield, a former flight instructor and by all accounts an ace pilot, manage to land a plane then drive it through a hangar wall? It was only partly the fault of the plane; it was mostly the fault of the pilot.

[Read more...]

Neil Armstrong OpEd in the Guardian

A smiling Armstrong inside the X-15′s cockpit. Credit: NASA

I was asked to write an opinion piece on Neil Armstrong’s passing for the Guardian. I thought a lot about the role he’s played in spaceflight history, not just because of the missions he flew but because of what he stood for in the space race. “With Armstrong’s death, the chapter of spaceflight history that opened with Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 has closed… we’ve lost the man who is recognised the world over as embodying Apollo’s triumph.”

 I think it’s up to historians to preserve Armstrong’s legacy within the context of the space race so he might serve as an inspirational figure to future generations. After all, he will always be the first man to have walked on the Moon and symbolic of Apollo’s success no matter what comes next. Read my full article on the Guardian.

Apollo’s Youthful Glow

Ferdowsi’s mohawk in JPL’s mission control during Curiosity’s landing. Credit: Associated Press

Since Curiosity landed on Mars last Sunday night, the internet has been buzzing not about the Sky Crane that delivered the rover to the surface but about “Mohawk Guy.” Bobak Ferdowsi is a 32-year old flight director at JPL who looks more like a rock star than an engineer. Consensus on the internet is that Ferdowsi – specifically his mohawk – has made NASA cool, young, and relevant; the most common refrain is along the lines of “this isn’t your father’s/grandfather’s NASA.” But Ferdowsi is actually older than most engineers of the Apollo era. In fact, the average age in mission control has risen since the Apollo days as engineers stay with the agency over multiple long-term programs. Though 1960s engineers may look old fashioned, your father’s or grandfather’s NASA was a fairly young one.   [Read more...]

The X-15′s First Glide

Crossfield stands in front of the X-15. Credit: The Scott Crossfield Foundation online

It was a chilly morning on June 8, 1959 when Scott Crossfield climbed into the cockpit of the X-15 rocket aircraft. By 8:30, he was airborne, and the aircraft  was nestled under the wing of the larger B-52 launch plane. Pilots Captain Charles Bock and Captain Jack Allavie kept a steady conversation with Crossfield about the X-15’s status. The B-52 was scheduled to launch the X-15 that morning at 8:40. More men than just the three in the air hoped nothing would prevent Crossfield making this maiden voyage.  [Read more...]

Mapping Vintage Space

Regular readers of Vintage Space are doubtless aware that I have a tendency to link newer posts to older ones. This reflects the interrelation of all the topics I have (and will) discuss in this blog. I find this era of history to be complex (as most big historical eras are) with aspects that can be treated independently, but need to be contextualized by one another.

And so I thought I would begin mapping Vintage Space, building a sort of narrative roadmap that will give the more casual reader a better idea of where in the history of space and spaceflight each individual episode belongs. This is in no way a complete chronology, but rather a framework for my content. (Pictured, the sun rise above the gulf of Mexico as seen from orbit by Apollo 7. 1968.) [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]