What is the Air Force doing with space?

By Phil Plait | May 24, 2010 7:30 am

The military uses for space travel are legion: besides the obvious utility of being able to launch weapons much more quickly at a target, it can be used to prevent military action through advanced intelligence gathering.

X-37_uprightThe Air Force has long been in the vanguard of space based operations, but of course much of that is secret (and rightly so). I had heard of the X-37 B — aka the Flying Twinkie — for some time, but since there was so little info on it I didn’t write anything. But interestingly, through Slashdot I learned that amateur satellite spotters have seen the X-37 B from the ground. Not many people know you can spot all sorts of satellites from your front yard; all you need in most cases is knowledge of your latitude and longitude and a website with satellite listings.

Info about the X-37 B is relatively tight, so it’s unclear what it’s being tested for. Surveillance is assured, since any satellite can be used for that. The Air Force says it has no offensive capabilities — I wonder if they mean the test shot launched last month, or the X-37 B itself — but it does have a payload capability for small satellites, and can be operated in orbit for at least 9 months. Its orbit takes it from -40° to +40° latitude. Go look at a globe and see what countries lie in that range that might be of interest to the military…

airforce_scramjetAlso of interest is that the Air Force is planning a test launch of a hypersonic scramjet called the X-51A, an aircraft capable of flight at speeds of at least Mach 6 — about 7000 kph! That launch may happen as soon as May 25. Scramjets are fiercely complex technologically; while technically rockets, they use oxygen from the air instead of carrying it on board. This saves a lot of mass, and has a huge range of uses; military of course, but also civilian uses for aircraft.

I saw an early version of a scramjet a few years ago, and was awed by it; Mach 6 is fast, and these things have an upper speed that may exceed that by quite a bit. When this tech tests out, it may revolutionize the whole world. Imagine getting from the US to Japan in an hour, or basically from any point in the world to any other point in just a few of hours! In a hundred years, statements like that may seem quaint, but for now, it’s the future.

Some people may knee-jerk and think the military will abuse this tech, but I understand that developing and using this sort of thing can help prevent conflicts… and may lead to a revolution as profound as the invention of the car, the airplane, and the spaceship. I hope the military can get all this working. I still have hopes that the near future will look like the one I read about when I was a kid.

X-37 B image credit: U.S. Air Force. Scramjet: Wikipedia, under the Creative Commons license.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Space

Comments (58)

  1. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Phil Plait:

    Imagine getting from the US to Japan in an hour, or basically from any point in the world to any other point in just a few of hours!

    Yeah, but what about your luggage?

  2. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE
  3. Guysmiley

    The X-37B is replacing the requirement that originally made the Shuttle the Swiss army knife it is, the single orbit 1,000 mile crossrange payload capability. WHY the USAF wanted and still wants this is a mystery, but the best guess is it’s for some kind of military satellite delivery mission. Some great information here: http://academicearth.org/lectures/the-dod-and-space-shuttle (that entire lecture series is fascinating for a Shuttle fan).

    Regarding the X-51, the problem with the promise of hypersonic commercial air travel is that energy ain’t free. If you thought a flight from L.A. to Tokyo is expensive aboard a 777, wait till you see the fuel bill for a hypersonic aircraft.

    The military’s intent is to use this technology for hypersonic “quick strike” missiles and maybe later on for a hypersonic bomber, giving almost ICBM like speed without the “hey, why are you launching ballistic missiles?” issue from the rest of the world (specifically Russia). In fact, the Pentagon looked at replacing nuclear warheads on some ICBMs with conventional explosives but it was decided that the potential downside was too great.

    Some interesting reading on the “Prompt Global Strike” mission: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RL33067.pdf

  4. BFire

    What about the Twinkie?

  5. Looks like a Lego rocket.

    That’s a compliment, by the way.

  6. Doug Little

    Now I don’t mind the Military spending money on research such as this provided that it eventually leaks out for civilian use. Must be pretty cool to work in some of these secret research facilities knowing that you have unlimited funds and are at the cutting edge of certain technologies. What would suck is that you couldn’t talk to anybody about it.

    I had a couple of buddies doing research into scram jets when I was graduating from university (ANU) back in the 90’s.

  7. Teshi

    I heard about the X-51A last night when that article began to make the rounds I guess. Exciting stuff!

  8. Steve

    I wonder where my copy of _Mike Mars Flies the Dyna-Soar_ got to?

  9. I have heard that military space technology indeed “leaks out,” starting with the Hubble Space Telescope. Matt Mountain said at a talk here at Goddard that being able to adapt previously developed technology from military research enabled NASA to keep HST’s budget to a doable level. But this is purely from memory, and I’m not an expert in this– perhaps somebody can comment.

  10. Mike

    Does the scramjet require regular (read: oil-based) fuels and how much? Does it produce lots of AGW gases? These are the kinds of issues that any future flying machine that’s intended for extensive global use needs to face. Another one is sound, flying at mach 6 is bound to be less-than-silent and even now fastest planes cannot exceed mach 1 over the habited areas because of how much annoying noise it produces.

  11. Messier Tidy Upper

    Looks like an awesome piece of machinery. Wonder when we’ll find out more.

    If its the same thing I think it is, then I’m pretty sure I saw it mentioned on Wikipedia! ;-)

    @2. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE : Hmmm … looking at the global map in that cartoon there I can only conclude they’ve invented FTL there as well because that planet sure doesn’t look like Earth! ;-)

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    It’s an awesome machine with potential, but I don’t think world connectivity is going to be one of them.

    The connectivity revolution came when continents were connected in days (so boats and planes). Hours instead of days is another order of magnitude but may well have less practical value; you loose more time readjusting your biological clockworks as it is.

    Besides, current air travel technology is out (airfields, near corridors, fuels, you name it). A parallel structure like high speed trains is still possible, they make the remaining railways more efficient for freight. So I expect some lines would be possible, but keeping very much the old structure as well.

    while technically rockets, they use oxygen from the air instead of carrying it on board.

    Not technically rockets as I understand it, as long as they compress air for use as oxidizer as fast as they consume it.

    When you start to add specific cooling cycles as in the Skylon Sabre engine the added preprocessing makes the boundaries between plane (incoming oxidizer) and rocket (stored oxidizer) fuzzy. [And of course the Sabre has a dedicated rocket mode as well.]

    Functionally, it’s much more a rocket than a plane, especially its engines. It doesn’t care much for aerodynamics (though precisely the waverider uses its own shock waves as lifting surfaces). Its engines uses fuel for cooling, and the engine performance is as close to a rocket as you can take it AFAIU, at least without specific cooling cycles. (See for example Wikipedia’s article with the graph on specific impulse.)

  13. Kullat Nunu

    The military uses for space travel are legion: besides the obvious utility of being able to launch weapons much more quickly at a target, it can be used to prevent military action through advanced intelligence gathering.

    From what I’ve seen, in these days intelligence is often cooked in order to start new conflicts. To the horror of honest hard-working intelligence folks who actually work for the best of the country and want to get the actual facts.

    Some people may knee-jerk and think the military will abuse this tech, but I understand that developing and using this sort of thing can help prevent conflicts…

    Are you sure? I would think that the bigger the technological difference, the greater the possibility of war. It’s really easy to bomb hillbillies on the other side of the world with state-of-the-art weaponry than to go to war with a state with an equal level of military technology.

    In the future(?), if the fighting is done with drones or robots, your country has no fear of own casualties (except for possible retaliatory terrorist strikes). Politically very easy to start a war if the population is only interested in own military losses.

    Just couple of my knee-jerk comments.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    what about your luggage?

    The most economical solution is to decouple luggage transportation, and make it a packet service like the Internet. (¬_¬)

    Actually, why would you care which plane the bulk of the luggage took, if the travel times is in hours? You could send them “off line” through various rotes and still have them delivered to your hotel in time for the dinner change of clothes.

    Or choose the cheaper “slow plane” route with cheap next day delivery. Maybe have them delivered staggered if you have a longer travel route, so you have a small package of fresh clothes and the others returned as they are used.

    On the Luggagenet everything is possible.

  15. Guysmiley

    Mike: Scramjet technology uses liquid hydrogen, which is most economically produced from steam reformation of natural gas or methane. Hypersonic travel is most certainly not fuel efficient, you’re dealing with massive drag forces at those velocities. If you’re interested in hugging trees or planet saving, this isn’t the technology for you.

  16. The military has made greta contributions to science and technology in the past so I’m usually happy for their involvement.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Does it produce lots of AGW gases?

    That depends on if the fuels are made from AGW neutral sources or not.

    And, while todays plane add very little clouds from hydrodynamic condensation at ~ 0.5 % observed over much of flight areas, you can expect future traffic volumes to add ~ 10-20 % cloud coverage at most, IIRC. [IPCC -07 technical material.] That would make them negative AGW factors, I believe, so that would be a boon.

    IPCC doesn’t seem to find flight technology much an AGW factor. I remember this from a discussion on hydrogen engines. (Which have other problems, but again no inherent AGW problems.)

    flying at mach 6 is bound to be less-than-silent

    The air pressure differential from sonic booms aren’t depending on final speed or (much) on flight height. It is the shock wave profile that decides that.

    If you use this in the existing or building commercial orbital and sub-orbital transport, there will be no difference.

    Many nations, US included I believe, prohibit commercial supersonic overflight, so this is despite BA utopian thinking not a likely flight transport commercial use unless those regulations are modified.

  18. BmoreKarl

    Hi Phil,

    I saw about the most lame, piece of journalism alleging just the opposite: http://digg.com/d31Rfdp

    That the Air Force might use this as a ballistic weapon is as dumb a straw man as you could conjure. We have plenty of guided missiles that cost less than billions to deploy, and this is a “re-usable” craft, not a missile.

    Oh, and a bomber – Weedon, was not really thinking about the possibilities. I bet it wouldn’t even take a high-power laser to disable and blind a Chinese spy bird, and it could probably bump some satellites out of orbit.

  19. Robert Carnegie

    “Imagine getting from the US to Japan in an hour, or basically from any point in the world to any other point in just a few of hours! In a hundred years, statements like that may seem quaint, but for now, it’s the future.”

    Lost your italics there… those who have read both “golden age” gushy science fiction, and in particular Lin Carter’s sharp parody “Masters of the Metropolis” in which a man of the Year 1956 makes a journey by the wonderful and yet, in that time, commonplace marvel of a “Subway Train”, must be thinking: “And all this, mind you, without a single human hand at the controls!”

    And, yes, what about your luggage… look, as long as -someone’s- luggage shows up, take that. It’ll do. A bit embarrassing when they ask “Did you pack this case yourself sir” and not one of the dresses fits me, but say you’re hoping to meet someone and… it’s still embarrassing.

  20. Sadly both the systems are unmanned at this time. And all the disign documents and roadmaps I saw for them while I was on active duty did not make the leap to manned systems (the safety considerations required were too daunting at that stage. Even asking the ASC office in charge for that would open a can of worms…).

    As for military tech, as the FIRST person that goes into harm’s way when military action happens, I can assure you that the #1 primary goal of the members of the military is to prevent open hostilities! (Not so sure about politicians that think invisible freinds tell them to invade countries, but that’s another discussion.) As a matter of fact, my last few years in the military were about developing non-lethal systems that would reduce suffering as well as allow us to more reliably determine intent before being put in a position of having to choose lethal action. As a human being in the service to the military, I felt that was my highest calling at that point in my life.

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    If its the same thing I think it is, then I’m pretty sure I saw it mentioned on Wikipedia

    Yep. It was indeed the same thing I saw on Wiki earlier as I’ve just checked & confirmed – see :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USA-212

    Did I mention that it’s great to see another spaceplane fly these days? 8)

    I hope it is the start of something and that it and /or its successors flies again many times and starts blazing a trail for such craft. It may not be the Shuttle but still it looks pretty neat & I hope it is part of our future.

    Congratulations to the Air Force folks that launched it & all the best for this marvellous craft. May it be used, successfully and well, ideally not in anger – though may it go well if it is – & may it live up to its potential in a way that the Shuttle, sadly, never quite did. :-)

  22. Guysmiley

    BmoreKarl : Huh? Alleging the opposite of what? The link (well the actual link: http://www.universetoday.com/2010/05/19/what-is-the-air-forces-secret-x-37b-space-plane-doing-in-orbit/ , not your apparent bid for Digg views) specifically states the speculation that the X-37B is intended as an offensive platform is science fiction.

    From that article:

    “Weeden has put together a fact sheet on the X-37B, looking at the technical feasibility of some of the proposed missions for the mini space shuttle look-alike, and says that there’s almost no chance it could be used as a new weapon or a new weapon delivery system…

    Weeden said that after looking at all the proposed missions for the X-37B, he concluded the most likely probability is that it will be used as a flexible, responsive spacecraft to collect intelligence from space and as a platform to flight test new sensors and satellite hardware.

    “One of the downsides to using satellites for collecting intelligence is that once they are launched they have a fixed set of sensors and capabilities,” Weeden said. “The X-37B brings to space the capability to customize the on-board sensor package for a specific mission, similar to what can be done with U.S. reconnaissance aircraft such as the U-2 and SR-71. In many ways, this gives the X-37B the best of both worlds,” he added.”

    Are you saying you think it IS some kind of secret military space fighter? We already have much cheaper and more proven methods of killing LEO satellites (Standard SM-3 missile).

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    BTW. Off topic sorry but are we going to see a BA blog post on the Japanese Ikaros solar sail & Venus spaceprobe launched the other week too please BA?

    See : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IKAROS & http://www.jspec.jaxa.jp/e/activity/ikaros.html &
    http://www.spaceflightnow.com/h2a/akatsuki/status.html

  24. Levi in NY

    “I still have hopes that the near future will look like the one I read about when I was a kid.”

    Any chance this scramjet technology could be incorporated into flying cars or personal jetpacks? ;)

  25. Given recent history in regards to the way military power has been used, I don’t think it is that big of a knee-jerk to assume fairly even odds this technology might be abused.

    Note the italics. I get into this argument frequently. The military is not the problem. It is the way the military is used to further personal and political goals that is the issue, and one of the inevitable downsides of an economy that is so thoroughly entwined with military spending.

    And I do find it interesting that the usual crowd of libertarians rarely shows up to comment on these posts. Oh, I forgot, “defense” is one of the few communal planks on their platform. I can just imagine, however, what private enterprise could do with this technology, if given a little seed money from big government.

    //snark

  26. AR

    Scramjets are fiercely complex technologically; while technically rockets, they use oxygen from the air instead of carrying it on board.

    No, scramjets are a proper sub-set of ramjets. (Supersonic Combustion Ramjet).

  27. Utakata

    I guess as long as they don’t use for killing people and/or abusing power and liberties. But still all this awe inspiring military technology makes me nervous. That maybe just me. :(

    On another brighter note…I wondered first, with the top picture: That would be a cool replacement for the Shuttle program…if it was only a tad bigger. :)

  28. Sili

    from any point in the world to any other point in just a few of hours!

    Ah ha haaaa. How adorably naïve.

    Do you honestly think the TSA is gonna let go of their little powertrip that easily?

  29. justcorbly

    The X-37 is an orphaned NASA project, so it’s capabilities ought to be easily discernible.

    It strikes me that we’re overlooking the one capability that distinguishes the X-37 compared with other ways the Air Force might get satellites in space (something it already knows how to do).

    That capability is that it can bring something back.

    Now, what you might want to bring back is up for discussion. Off the top of my head, I’d think bringing back satellites for repair or refueling would be of use.

  30. Now, what you might want to bring back is up for discussion.

    Somebody else’s satellite?

    But seriously, I think the little snafu from — where was it, Pakistan, Afghanistan? one of the ‘stans — where U.S. satellite data was intercepted and decoded might have something to do with that. If you really don’t want someone to know what you know, you send the eyeballs up, then bring ‘em back down again.

  31. Did anybody else note the Dalek panels around the X37? What are they good for?

  32. JoeSmithCA

    I can’t see this as a weapons carrier or a weapon. For killing sats, all you need is a nice high power laser (for blinding them you just need a weaker one). It’s a waste as a nuclear weapon carrier, thats what ICBMs are for. As a bomber, it has quite a small payload and you’re gonna need to de-orbit that payload somehow? Orbit as you need spy sat with swap out functions. Payload fried by a laser? Bring down the bird and swap out the optics. etc…

  33. @ 9. gogblog
    You wrote:
    “I have heard that military space technology indeed “leaks out,” starting with the Hubble Space Telescope. Matt Mountain said at a talk here at Goddard that being able to adapt previously developed technology from military research enabled NASA to keep HST’s budget to a doable level. But this is purely from memory, and I’m not an expert in this– perhaps somebody can comment”.

    The Hubble Space telescope design is based on the NRO operated KeyHole Optical Intelligence satellites – the difference is that it looks up instead of down, as the KH’s do… :-)

  34. Allen

    Those 80 degrees cover most of the major countries, except for maybe most of Russia, but I was looking at a map that didn’t have 50 degrees defined, so I had to eyeball it.

  35. By the way: one thing the X-37B has over ICBM’s when it comes to delivering small but high precision weapons to a target, is virtually zero advance warning.
    ICBM’s take time to get to their target, their launch cannot be hidden and they are easier to detect than something coming from space. Detection of a US ICBM launch by an adversary gives that adversary time to prepare mitigation actions – e.g. readying anti-ballistic weapons, shoving dictators into a nuclear bunker, or launching ICBM’s itself.
    The X-37B however can be launched months before, stay up there and prowl about seemingly innocent for a prolonged period (as it does on this test flight), and then at one moment, while over a target, release and guide a weapon to that target in a matter of just minutes, which gives the adversary very little time to react.

    However, I think a more likely role for the craft is in quick, flexible intelligence gathering response, especially electronic intelligence gathering over a war-theater (for example, SAR imagery). This either using custom mission-tailored (removable) onboard sensors in the payload bay, or by deploying custom-mission tailored, low-cost micro-satellites.

  36. Buzz Parsec

    The Dalek panels are on the inside of the payload shroud that got ejected as soon as the rocket rose above the densest part of the atmosphere (probably about 50 miles up.) Or maybe that’s just what they want us to think. On the third hand, it could be the inside of the Master’s Tardis…

    Seriously, there’s been a lot of speculation on some of the space web sites about exactly why the military wants this capability, but no convincing explanations. The key new feature seems to be that the X37B can carry a payload down through reentry and land it on a runway. Spy sats used to carry reentry capsules to return exposed film, but now it’s all digital and and the images are radioed down in real time or at least much quicker than recovering a capsule, transporting it to a lab and developing and printing the film. It has a payload bay, but it doesn’t seem big enough to hold a captured satellite and doesn’t seem to have a robot arm or any other means of grappling an uncooperative satellite. So that seems unlikely.

  37. Maybe Saddam Hussein hid his WMDs up in low earth orbit, so the X-37B will fly up and retrieve them before Iran gets there.

  38. Jamey

    1) “Announcer: The Crossbow Project. There’s No Defense Like a Good Offense.”

    2) What about javelins or brilliant pebbles?

  39. Astrofiend

    Sorry – how is a scramjet technically a rocket? I thought that the fundamental differentiating feature of rockets and jets was that rockets carry their oxidizer on board, where as jets pull it from the atmosphere…

  40. Guysmiley777

    But seriously, I think the little snafu from — where was it, Pakistan, Afghanistan? one of the ’stans — where U.S. satellite data was intercepted and decoded might have something to do with that. If you really don’t want someone to know what you know, you send the eyeballs up, then bring ‘em back down again.

    Uhhhh, no. That was ignorant journalism run amok. The supposed haxx0rs were picking up UNENCRYPTED video feeds being intentionally transmitted from UAVs. Drones like the Predator as well as tactical aircraft with certain targeting pods (Litening II and Sniper ER pods) have a system called ROVER which allows them to broadcast video to troops on the ground with a receiver. This video signal is broadcast in the clear to anyone with an antenna, and can be turned on or off by the transmitting aircraft or sensor.

    It wasn’t interception so much as jury rigging plain off the shelf consumer electronics.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROVER

  41. AR

    Not quite, Astrofiend. Not all rockets require oxidizer at all. The distinguishing feature of a rocket is that it carries all of its own fuel and reaction mass.

    So, scramjets still aren’t rockets, but for another reason.

    Some hypothetical spacecraft engines designs, in fact, are also not rockets, such as the bussard ramjet and the RAIR engine.

  42. Michel

    “Imagine getting from the US to Japan in an hour”
    What will that do to jetlag?
    Will it be better or worse?

  43. Grand Lunar

    I wonder what it would’ve been like had the CEV design had been based off this (the X-37) rather than Apollo.

  44. justcorbly

    >>I wonder what it would’ve been like had the CEV design had been based off this (the X-37) rather than Apollo.

    I don’t see any compelling reason to put wings on a vehicle intended to reenter at 25,000 mph. A winged vehicle might be used as a ferry to and from LEO, if it could fly with a frequency and a degree of reliability that warranted the extra complexity. But, those attributes can be acquired at least as readily with other kinds of vehicles.

    Wings are needed to fly. If you do not need to fly, you do not need wings.

  45. GuruOfChem

    @Jamey – kudos for the “Real Genius” ref…

    I was thinking the same thing – you could thrash a ground formation pretty easily with a kinetic kill javelin/pebble from one of these

  46. mike burkhart

    This is just the latest in a long line of plans of the millatary in space.In the 60s the Air Force wanted to set up its own space program seprate form NASA,they planed to have there own space craft called Dyna sorr ,a prototype of the space shuttle,during project Gemini,there was a plan to use Gemini spacecraft in military missions called Blue Gemini,there were also plans to launch the Space Shuttle on military missons form Vandenberg Air Force base.None of these ever got off the ground.To get off topic ,if you always wanted to be an Astronaut and have a Nintendo DS ,get the game Space Camp .You get to land on the Moon and man a Moon base walk and drive on the Moon ,colect Moon rocks,find ore in the rocks,look thro a telescope on the Moon base ,construct what you need,find information about the space program ,defend the base form metors and aliens,talk to robots,and even visit the Apollo 11 landing site.I think you will like this game.

  47. Guysmiley

    I don’t see any compelling reason to put wings on a vehicle intended to reenter at 25,000 mph. A winged vehicle might be used as a ferry to and from LEO, if it could fly with a frequency and a degree of reliability that warranted the extra complexity. But, those attributes can be acquired at least as readily with other kinds of vehicles.

    Wings are needed to fly. If you do not need to fly, you do not need wings.

    The need to fly is a requirement of a large “cross range” capability. This comes from the DOD wanting to be able to go up into a polar trajectory, deploy a satellite on the first orbit and then return to the launch site. The thing is, when that first orbit is completed, the Earth has rotated under the craft and will be about 1,000 miles away. That’s where the need for wings (on this thing and the Shuttle) came from.

  48. 45. justcorbly Says: “I don’t see any compelling reason to put wings on a vehicle intended to reenter at 25,000 mph. A winged vehicle might be used as a ferry to and from LEO, if it could fly with a frequency and a degree of reliability that warranted the extra complexity. But, those attributes can be acquired at least as readily with other kinds of vehicles.”

    In the late ’50’s von Braun proposed a winged moon vehicle for a one-shot quick trip to beat the Russkies. He knew that there was no TPS (Thermal Protection System) yet developed that could survive a ballistic reentry from the moon at 25K MPH (40,000 Km/hr) so his idea was to do a grazing reentry that would normally skip back into space, but do it with the plane inverted so that the lift would actually be pushing the craft towards the Earth and keep it in orbit at a far higher speed than normally possible for that altitude. It would calmly burn off energy at a reduced rate and then fly back down.

    The entry orbit that he picked would actually have about 2g of centripetal acceleration outward, but 1g of that would be cancelled by the Earth’s gravity so to the crew it would feel like normal flying in a conventional airplane, except the sky would be underneath and the ground overhead. They’d know when they’d slowed down to the correct orbital velocity for that altitude since they would be back to zero-g. They would continue to slow since they were now inside substantial altitude, but at that point they could roll the ship back upright and fly it back down.

    He wrote up this mission in his book “The First Men To The Moon” which I excerpted in “Spaceship Handbook.”

    – Jack

  49. 47. mike burkhart Says: “In the 60s the Air Force wanted to set up its own space program separate form NASA, they planed to have there own space craft called Dyna sorr, a prototype of the space shuttle, during project Gemini, there was a plan to use Gemini spacecraft in military missions called Blue Gemini, there were also plans to launch the Space Shuttle on military missions form Vandenberg Air Force base.”

    I have chapters on Dyna Soar (short for “Dynamic Soaring”) and the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL), which used a Gemini capsule for crew transport, in “Spaceship Handbook.” The MOL chapter includes a description of the “Blue Gemini” program.

    There was one BG test flight. The sixth development flight of the Titan IIIC (the version with the strap-on rocket motors like the shuttle) carried a mock-up of the MOL into orbit. At the nose was a Gemini capsule that had already been used by NASA as “Gemini II” for reentry tests. Since the plan was for the MOL crew to transfer directly into the laboratory from the capsule, they needed a hatch that went through the heat shield. To make sure the shield would still work, the Air Force “borrowed” the used capsule from NASA, re-designated it “Gemini B” and cut a circular piece out of the shield. They mounted the piece onto a hatch and put the assembly back into place. It worked fine since the resin in the fiberglass shield melted back into place, fusing the shield solid again during reentry.

    If you want to see it, the capsule is on display at the Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio.

    – Jack

  50. squirrelelite

    Here is a link to a short article with a link to a video of the X-37 in space shot by a Canadian amateur photographer!

    http://www.military.com/news/article/amateur-films-us-space-plane-in-orbit.html?col=1186032310810&ESRC=airforce-a.nl

  51. Jim Kelly

    Jack, are you sure about that Air Force Museum capsule having actually flown? The Wikipedia article on the Titan IIIC has an image of an MOL mockup launch with what looks like a Gemini on top, all right… but here’s text from the museum Web site: ( http://tinyurl.com/3xxlut5 )

    Gemini B Spacecraft
    The spacecraft on display at the museum, although flight-rated, never flew. It was used for heat testing and transferred to the Air Force for use in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. … The Gemini B/MOL craft on display is externally similar to NASA’s Gemini spacecraft but has many modifications. The most obvious is the addition of a circular hatch through the heat shield to allow passage between the spacecraft and the laboratory…

  52. hopefully, if true these will be used to build another stepping stone to , moving some of the eggs out off one basket , everybody knows the human race is crapping in it’s own bed , and not about to stop anytime soon. maybe it is already to late who really knows. time to find other breading places for the virus known as human, before it is not possible. just a thought.

  53. Gary

    “Some people may knee-jerk and think the military will abuse this tech”

    This view is naive and a common misperception. The ‘military’ doesn’t abuse any technology. It provides solutions to support the military mission and national security. If anyone abuses military technology it is those in government (that is, executive) who order its use for reasons beyond its original design and intent.

    For example, the hypersonic vehicle was initially thought of as a cargo delivery vehicle – for emergency rations (like were delivered in Afghanistan by airdrop), or quick delivery of security troops into a deteoriorating situation. They have immense rescue potential (Haiti). Of course, they have military weaponizing capabilities but that is not the pure reason for its development – it’s an awfully expensive cruise missile!

  54. A few from the pictures are not displaying properly but, the web page still looks great. I’ve been visiting this web site for a couple of weeks now and i’m quite impressed with the information. What could be the rss address?

  55. william cordova

    the X-37B design looks extremely similar to the original X-20A Dyna-Soar (Dynamic Soarer) a single-pilot manned reusable spaceplane, really the earliest American manned space project to result in development contracts. Cancellation in December 1963 came only eight months before drop tests from a B-52 and a first manned flight in 1966. It’s interesting how that secret program evolved into MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) and cost the US tax payers over $4 million dollars without ever becoming a functional program outside of the earths atmosphere. True it did create many technological advances but at a huge cost that could have been and can still be avoided.

    US priority should be bailing out the foreclosed families and bankrupt small business people not the Banks, Wallstreet muscle and special interest groups running congress.

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