Becker’s Lament

Despite the variety of artists’ concepts and popular press articles on an orbital X-15, in the end the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would decide to endorse a concept that had been initiated by the Air Force and use a small ballistic capsule for the first U. S. manned space program, renamed Mercury. Nevertheless, a small minority within NASA, mainly at Langley, continued to argue that lifting-reentry vehicles would be far superior to the non-lifting capsules. In fact, at the last NACA Conference on High-Speed Aerodynamics in March 1958, John Becker presented a concept for a manned 3,060-pound winged orbital satellite. According to Becker, this paper, which dissented from the consensus within the NACA favoring a ballistic capsule, created more industry reaction-"almost all of it favorable’-than any other he had ever written, including the initial X-15 study.-13"

What ruled out acceptance of his proposal, even more than the sheer momentum behind the capsules, was the fact that the 1,000 pounds of extra weight (compared to the capsule design presented by Max Faget) was beyond the capability of the Atlas ICBM. If the Titan had been further along, Becker’s concept would have worked, but the simple fact was that Atlas was the only game in town. If it had all happened a year or two later, when the Titan became available, Becker believes that "the first U. S. manned satellite might well have been a [one-man] landable winged vehicle." The decision to adopt the capsule concept made the X-15 a dead end, at least temporarily. It would be a decade later when the aerospace community again decided that a winged lifting-reentry vehicle was feasible; the result would be the space shuttle.

There was one other orbital X-15 proposal. At the end of 1959, Harrison Storms presented a version of the X-15B launched using a Saturn I first stage and an "ICBM-type" second stage. According to Storms, "We figure the X-15, carrying two pilots…could be put into orbit hundreds of miles above the earth. Or with a scientific or military payload of thousands of pounds…into a lower orbit." Storms estimated that it would take three to four years of development and presented the idea to both the Air Force and NASA, but neither organization was interested. NASA was too busy with Mercury, and the Air Force was occupied with Dyna-Soar and fighting off Robert McNamara.-1140-

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