The Navaho Missile and Its Supersonic Stand-In

By | Aircraft, Aviation, History of Space Science, Rockets | One Comment
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

By | Aircraft, Aviation, History of Space Science | 4 Comments
A stunning picture of the U-2 with fictitious NASA markings. Presumably sometime in mid-1960. Credit: via

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

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

When Yeager Eased Through the Sound Barrier

By | Aircraft, History of Space Science | 14 Comments

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

By | Aircraft, History of Space Science | 3 Comments

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.

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Neil Armstrong OpEd in the Guardian

By | Apollo, Gemini, History of Space Science, Mercury, Moon | 2 Comments

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.

Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot

By | Apollo, Gemini, History of Space Science, Manned Spaceflight | 32 Comments

Armstrong enjoys a cigar in March, 1969. Credit: Ralph Morse/Life

I walked in the house this afternoon to find a heap of emails, text messages, and voicemails about Neil Armstrong’s death. I was shocked. My next thought was that Armstrong will never be truly gone. When he stepped on the Moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired a generation to pursue careers in science. A generation later, children reading about Apollo (including myself) were similarly inspired. I don’t think the effect will wear off in generations to come. But Armstrong’s legacy is so much more than just Apollo 11. His contributions to and role in some of the earliest and most innovative early spaceflight programs are significant. Preserving that legacy will keep him alive and is vital to doing his memory justice.

I can’t possibly sum up all the projects Armstrong was involved in in one article, so here’s a brief look at his career leading up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing with links to full stories I’ve covered elsewhere.   Read More

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Animals in Space Before NASA

By | History of Space Science, Manned Spaceflight | 4 Comments

For most people, early biological testing in space brings to mind Ham the chimp, angrily trying to bit any hand that came near him after his suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket. But Ham was launched on January 31, 1961, nearly a decade after the first monkeys survive surborbital flights. Biological testing in space goes back even further. In the late 1940s, fruit flies became the first animals to survive exposure to spaceflight conditions. (Left, Ham ready for launch in 1961. The system in his capsule designed to reward or shock him for his inflight performance malfunctioned and he was shocked for pushing the right buttons. He was, understandably, irate.)  Read More

A History of the Dyna-Soar

By | Aircraft, Manned Spaceflight, Soviet | 15 Comments

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing some research into the USAF Dyna-Soar or X-20 program, and its story is much more interesting than I realized. Like many of the unrealized programs of the early space age, its impact extends far beyond its immediate application. Dyna-Soar is typically referenced in passing as an upgraded version of the X-15, an aircraft capable of achieving orbiting, but this connection is misleading. Dyna-Soar came from an entirely different place than the X-15, and its story is much more complicated than a simple cancelled research program. (A worker inspects a full-scale mockup of Dyna-Soar. Reader’s Digest described the vehicle as a cross between a porpoise and a manta ray. Early 1960s. Photo: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.) Read More

In Support of the X-15

By | Aircraft | One Comment

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

Rogallo After Gemini

By | Apollo, Gemini, Manned Spaceflight, Mercury, Space Shuttle | 6 Comments

In a previous post, I looked at the Rogallo paraglider wing landing system and its failed development as part of NASA’s Gemini program. I also mentioned that the landing system didn’t disappear right away. After its cancellation from Gemini, NASA attempted to salvage its research and incorporate the landing system in Apollo and its follow-up programs. The US Air Force also expressed interest in including the Rogallo wing into its own space program. Regardless of the extra attention, it would seem that the paraglider was doomed to never leave the ground. (Left, a model Gemini capsule with Rogallo wing in a wind tunnel test. 1961.) Read More