“I remember when Sputnik was launched,” says Arthur Thomas, a leader in early work on scramjets at Marquardt. The date was 4 October 1957- “I was doing analy­sis of scramjet boosters to go into orbit. We were claiming back in those days that we could get the cost down to a hundred dollars per pound by using airbreathers.” He adds that “our job was to push the frontiers. We were extremely excited and optimistic that we were really on the leading edge of something that was going to be big.”49

At APL, other investigators proposed what may have been the first concept for a hypersonic airplane that merited consideration. In an era when the earliest jet airliners were only beginning to enter service, William Avery leaped beyond the supersonic transport to the hypersonic transport, at least in his thoughts. His col­league Eugene Pietrangeli developed a concept for a large aircraft with a wingspan of 102 feet and length of 175 feet, fitted with turbojets and with the Dugger-Keirsey external-burning scramjet, with its short cowl, under each wing. It was to accelerate to Mach 3.6 using the turbojets, then go over to scramjet propulsion and cruise at Mach 7. Carrying 130 passengers, it was to cross the country in half an hour and achieve a range of 7,000 miles. Its weight of 600,000 pounds was nearly twice that of the Boeing 707 Intercontinental, largest of that family of jetliners.50

Within the Air Force, an important prelude to similar concepts came in 1957 with Study Requirement 89774. It invited builders of large missiles to consider what modifications might make them reusable. It was not hard to envision that they might return to a landing on a runway by fitting them with wings and jet engines, but most such rocket stages were built of aluminum, which raised serious issues of thermal protection. Still, Convair at least had a useful point of departure. Its Atlas used stainless steel, which had considerably better heat resistance.51

The Convair concept envisioned a new version of this missile, fitted out as a reusable first stage for a launch vehicle. Its wings were to use the X-15’s structure. A crew compartment, set atop a rounded nose, recalled that company’s B-36 heavy bomber. To ease the thermal problem, designers were aware that this stage, having burned its propellants, would be light in weight. It therefore could execute a hyper­sonic glide while high in the atmosphere, losing speed slowly and diminishing the rate of heating.52

It did not take long before Convair officials began to view this reusable Atlas as merely a first step into space, for the prospect of LACE opened new vistas. Begin­ning late in 1957, using a combination of Air Force and in-house funding, the company launched paper studies of a new concept called Space Plane. It took shape as a large single-stage vehicle with highly-swept delta wings and a length of 235 feet. Propulsion was to feature a combination of ramjets and LACE with ACES, installed as separate engines, with the ACES being distillation type. The gross weight at take­off, 450,000 pounds, was to include 270,000 pounds of liquid hydrogen.


Convair’s Space Plane concept. (Art by Dennis Jenkins)

Space Plane was to take off from a runway, using LACE and ACES while pump­ing the oxygen-rich condensate directly to the LACE combustion chambers. It would climb to 40,000 feet and Mach 3, cut off the rocket, and continue to fly using hydrogen-fueled ramjets. It was to use ACES for air collection while cruising at Mach 5-5 and 66,000 feet, trading liquid hydrogen for oxygen-rich liquid air while taking on more than 600,000 pounds of this oxidizer. Now weighing more than a million pounds, Space Plane would reach Mach 7 on its ramjets, then shut them down and go over completely to rocket power. Drawing on its stored oxidizer, it could fly to orbit while carrying a payload of 38,000 pounds.

The concept was born in exuberance. Its planners drew on estimates “that by 1970 the orbital payload accumulated annually would be somewhere between two million and 20 million pounds.” Most payloads were to run near 10,000 pounds, thereby calling for a schedule of three flights per day. Still the concept lacked an important element, for if scramjets were nowhere near the state of the art, at Con – vair they were not even the state of the imagination.53 Space Plane, as noted, used ramjets with subsonic combustion, installing them in pods like turbojets on a B-52. Scramjets lay beyond the thoughts of other companies as well. Thus, Northrop expected to use LACE with its Propulsive Fluid Accumulator (PROFAC) concept, which also was to cruise in the atmosphere while building up a supply of liquefied air. Like Space Plane, PROFAC also specified conventional ramjets.54

But Republic Aviation was home to the highly imaginative Kartveli, with Ferri being just a phone call away. Here the scramjet was very much a part of people’s thinking. Like the Convair designers, Kartveli looked ahead to flight to orbit with a single stage. He also expected that this goal was too demanding to achieve in a single jump, and he anticipated that intermediate projects would lay groundwork. He presented his thoughts in August I960 at a national meeting of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences.55

The XF-103 had been dead and buried for three years, but Kartveli had crafted the F-105, which topped Mach 2 as early as 1956 and went forward into produc­tion. He now expected to continue with a Mach 2.3 fighter-bomber with enough power to lift off vertically as if levitating and to cruise at 75,000 feet. Next on the agenda was a strategic bomber powered by nuclear ramjets, which would use atomic power to heat internal airflow, with no need to burn fuel. It would match the peak speed of the X-7 by cruising at Mach 4.25, or 2,800 mph, and at 85,000 feet.56

Kartveli set Mach 7, or 5,000 mph, as the next goal. He anticipated achieving this speed with another bomber that was to cruise at 120,000 feet. Propulsion was to come from two turbojets and two ramjets, with this concept pressing the limits of subsonic combustion. Then for flight to orbit, his masterpiece was slated for Mach 25. It was to mount four J58 turbojets, modified to burn hydrogen, along with four scramjets. Ferri had convinced him that such engines could accelerate this craft all the way to orbit, with much of the gain in speed taking place while flying at 200,000 feet. A small rocket engine might provide a final boost into space, but Kartveli placed his trust in Ferris scramjets, planning to use neither LACE nor ACES.57

These concepts drew attention, and funding, from the Aero Propulsion Labora­tory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Its technical director, Weldon Worth, had been closely involved with ramjets since the 1940s. Within a world that the turbojet had taken by storm, he headed a Nonrotating Engine Branch that focused on ram­jets and liquid-fuel rockets. Indeed, he regarded the ramjet as holding the greater

promise, taking this topic as his own while leaving the rockets to his deputy, Lieu­tenant Colonel Edward Hall. He launched the first Air Force studies of hypersonic propulsion as early as 1957. In October 1959 he chaired a session on scramjets at the Second USAF Symposium on Advanced Propulsion Concepts.

In the wake of this meeting, he built on the earlier SR-89774 efforts and launched a new series of studies called Aerospaceplane. It did not aim at anything so specific as a real airplane that could fly to orbit. Rather, it supported design studies and conducted basic research in advanced propulsion, seeking to develop a base for the evolution of such craft in the distant future. Marquardt and GASL became heavily involved, as did Convair, Republic, North American, GE, Lockheed, Northrop, and Douglas Aircraft.58

The new effort broadened the scope of the initial studies, while encouraging companies to pursue their concepts to greater depth. Convair, for one, had issued single-volume reports on Space Plane in October 1959, April I960, and December I960. In February 1961 it released an 11-volume set of studies, with each of them addressing a specific topic such as Aerodynamic Heating, Propulsion, Air Enrich­ment Systems, Structural Analysis, and Materials.59

Aerospaceplane proved too hot to keep under wraps, as a steady stream of disclo­sures presented concept summaries to the professional community and the general public. Aviation Week, hardly shy in these matters, ran a full-page article in October 1960:


Studies costing $20 million sought in next budget, Earth-to-orbit vehicle

would need no large booster.60

At the Los Angeles Times, the aerospace editor Marvin Miles published headlined stories of his own. The first appeared in November:



Air Force Interested in Project51

Two months later another of his articles ran as a front-page headline:


Proposed Wing Vehicle Would Take Off, Return Like Conventional Craft

It particularly cited Convair’s Space Plane, with a Times artist presenting a view of this craft in flight.62

Participants in the new studies took to the work with enthusiasm matching that of Arthur Thomas at Marquardt. Robert Sanator, a colleague of Kartveli at Repub­lic, recalls the excitement: “This one had everything. There wasn’t a single thing in it that was off-the-shelf. Whatever problem there was in aerospace—propulsion, materials, cooling, aerodynamics—Aerospaceplane had it. It was a lifetime work and it had it all. I naturally jumped right in.”63

Aerospaceplane also drew attention from the Air Forces Scientific Advisory Board, which set up an ad hoc committee to review its prospects. Its chairman, Alexander Flax, was the Air Forces chief scientist. Members specializing in propul­sion included Ferri, along with Seymour Bogdonoflf of Princeton University, a lead­ing experimentalist; Perry Pratt of Pratt & Whitney, who had invented the twin – spool turbojet; NASA’s Alfred Eggers; and the rocket specialist George P. Sutton. There also were hands-on program managers: Robert Widmer of Convair, builder of the Mach 2 B-58 bomber; Harrison Storms of North American, who had shaped the X-15 and the Mach З XB-70 bomber.64

This all-star group came away deeply skeptical of the prospects for Aerospace­plane. Its report, issued in December 1960, addressed a number of points and gave an overall assessment:

The proposed designs for Aerospace Plane…appear to violate no physical principles, but the attractive performance depends on an estimated combination of optimistic assumptions for the performance of components and subsystems. There are practically no experimental data which support these assumptions.