Friday, June 15, 2012

50 Years Ago: First Steps toward a Space Shuttle

Famous MoonWalker with X-15 in 1962.

You may or may not recognize the famous pilot in the picture above. But you certainly would recognize his name. Fifty years ago, NASA and the US Air Force were conducting tests with various test craft that would eventually help us build the Space Shuttle. One of those programs was certainly the X-15. In the picture above, Neil Armstrong stands near the nose of one of the three X-15 test rocket planes. At this point, Armstrong had not yet left the X-15 program to train for being an astronaut, yet he had already flown missions to the edge of our atmosphere.

X-20 DynaSoar mock-up. Credit: Boeing

Beside the X-15, the US Air Force was also working on a potential spacecraft that would glide back to Earth. Designated the X-20 DynaSoar, it would be boosted into space on a rocket, orbit the Earth, dock with a planned orbital space station, then re-enter the atmosphere and glide to a runway landing. Sound familiar? Many of the studies done preparing this spacecraft would be studied by engineers who later designed the Space Shuttle. But in 1962, it was just being developed.

Conceptual art of DynaSoar on Titan booster.

The Titan rocket figured prominently in the studies. Engineers were already preparing to advance from the Atlas rocket to the Titan when NASA would shift from the single-seat Mercury capsule to the double-occupant Gemini capsule. Fifty years ago in June, the USAF was testing how to add power to the Titan by strapping solid-rocket motors to the main body.

Computer art of DynaSoar testing. Credit: DeepCold. Learn more about the DynaSoar program as it could have been by visiting

In June of 1962, Neil Armstrong was reported to be preparing for the DynaSoar missions. Flying an Air Force F-5 fighter jet, he was practice runway landings using data given to him by the DynaSoar engineers. But DynaSoar was not a lasting project for Neil. In the summer of 1962, he was selected with 8 other test pilots as "the New Nine", the second group of astronauts to work in NASA.

Northrop YF-5, prototype test aircraft.

F-5 control panel.

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