Winged Spacecraft and Dyna-Soar
Boost-glide rockets, with wings, entered the realm of advanced conceptual design with postwar studies at Bell Aircraft called Bomi, Bomber Missile. The director of the work, Walter Dornberger, had headed Germany’s wartime rocket development program and had been in charge of the V-2. The new effort involved feasibility studies that sought to learn what might be done with foreseeable technology, but Bomi was a little too advanced for some of Dornberger’s colleagues. Historian Roy Houchin writes that when Dornberger faced “abusive and insulting remarks” from an Air Force audience, he responded by declaring that his Bomi would be receiving more respect if he had had the chance to fly it against the United States during the war. In Houchin’s words, “The silence was deafening.”1
The initial Bomi concept, dating back to 1951, took form as an in-house effort. It called for a two-stage rocket, with both stages being piloted and fitted with delta wings. The lower stage was mostly of aluminum, with titanium leading edges and nose; the upper stage was entirely of titanium and used radiative cooling. With an initial range of 3,500 miles, it was to come over the target above 100,000 feet and at speeds greater than Mach 4. Operational concepts called for bases in England or Spain, targets in the western Soviet Union, and a landing site in northern Africa.2
During the spring of 1952, Bell officials sought funds for further study from Wright Air Development Center (WADC). A year passed, and WADC responded with a firm no. The range was too short. Thermal protection and onboard cooling raised unanswered questions. Values assumed for L/D appeared highly optimistic, and no information was available on stability, control, or aerodynamic flutter at the proposed speeds. Bell responded by offering to consider higher speeds and greater range. Basic feasibility then lay even farther in the future, but the Air Forces interest in the Atlas ICBM meant that it wanted missiles of longer range, even though shorter-range designs could be available sooner. An intercontinental Bomi at least could be evaluated as a potential alternative to Atlas, and it might find additional roles such as strategic reconnaissance.3
In April 1954, with that ICBM very much in the ascendancy, WADC awarded Bell its desired study contract. Bomi now had an Air Force designation, MX-2276. Bell examined versions of its two-stage concept with 4,000- and 6,000-mile ranges while introducing a new three-stage configuration with the stages mounted belly – to-back. Liftoff thrust was to be 1.2 million pounds, compared with 360,000 for the three-engine Atlas. Bomi was to use a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid fluorine, the latter being highly corrosive and hazardous, whereas Atlas needed only liquid oxygen, which was much safer. The new Bomi was to reach 22,000 feet per second, slightly less than Atlas, but promised a truly global glide range of 12,000 miles. Even so, Atlas clearly was preferable.4
But the need for reconnaissance brought new life to the Bell studies. At WADC, in parallel with initiatives that were sparking interest in unpiloted reconnaissance satellites, officials defined requirements for Special Reconnaissance System 118P. These called initially for a range of 3,500 miles at altitudes above 100,000 feet. Bell won funding in September 1955, as a follow-on to its recently completed MX – 2276 activity, and proposed a two-stage vehicle with a Mach 15 glider. In March 1956 the company won a new study contract for what now was called Brass Bell. It took shape as a fairly standard advanced concept of the mid-1950s, with a liquid – fueled expendable first stage boosting a piloted craft that showed sharply swept delta wings. The lower stage was conventional in design, burning Atlas propellants with uprated Atlas engines, but the glider retained the company’s preference for fluorine. Officials at Bell were well aware of its perils, but John Sloop at NACA-Lewis was successfully testing a fluorine rocket engine with 20,000 pounds of thrust, and this gave hope.5
The Brass Bell study contract went into force at a moment when prospects for boost-glide were taking a sharp step upward. In February 1956 General Thomas Power, head of the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), stated that the Air Force should stop merely considering such radical concepts and begin developing them. High on his list was a weapon called Robo, Rocket Bomber, for which several firms were already conducting in-house work as a prelude to funded study contracts. Robo sought to advance beyond Brass Bell, for it was to circle the globe and hence required near-orbital speed. In June ARDC Headquarters set forth System Requirement 126 that defined the scope of the studies. Convair, Douglas, and North American won the initial awards, with Martin, Bell, and Lockheed later participating as well.
The X-15 by then was well along in design, but it clearly was inadequate for the performance requirements of Brass Bell and Robo. This raised the prospect of a new and even more advanced experimental airplane. At ARDC Headquarters, Major George Colchagoff took the initiative in pursuing studies of such a craft, which took the name HYWARDS: Hypersonic Weapons Research and Development Supporting System. In November 1956 the ARDC issued System Requirement 131, thereby placing this new X-pIane on the agenda as well.6
The initial HYWARDS concept called for a flight speed of Mach 12. However, in December Bell Aircraft raised the speed of Brass Bell to Mach 18. This increased the boost-glide range to 6,300 miles, but it opened a large gap between the performance of the two craft, inviting questions as to the applicability of HYWARDS results. In January a group at NACA-Langley, headed by John Becker, weighed in with a report stating that Mach 18, or 18,000 feet per second, was appropriate for HYWARDS. The reason was that “at this speed boost gliders approached their peak heating environment. The rapidly increasing flight altitudes at speeds above Mach 18 caused a reduction in the heating rates.”7
With the prospect now strong that Brass Bell and HYWARDS would have the same flight speed, there was clear reason not to pursue them as separate projects but to consolidate them into a single program. A decision at Air Force Headquarters, made in March 1957, accomplished this and recognized their complementary characters. They still had different goals, with HYWARDS conducting flight research and Brass Bell being the operational reconnaissance system, but HYWARDS now was to stand as a true testbed.8
Robo still was a separate project, but events during 1957 brought it into the fold as well. In June an ad hoc review group, which included members from ARDC and WADC, looked at Robo concepts from contractors. Robert Graham, a NACA attendee, noted that most proposals called for “a boost-glide vehicle which would fly at Mach 20-25 at an altitude above 150,000 feet.” This was well beyond the state of the art, but the panel concluded that with several years of research, an experimental craft could enter flight test in 1965, an operational hypersonic glider in 1968, and Robo in 19747
On 10 October—less than a week after the Soviets launched their first Sputnik— ARDC endorsed this three-part plan by issuing a lengthy set of reports, “Abbreviated Systems Development Plan, System 464L—Hypersonic Strategic Weapon System.” It looked ahead to a research vehicle capable of 18,000 feet per second and
350,0 feet, to be followed by Brass Bell with the same speed and 170,000 feet, and finally Robo, rated at 25,000 feet per second and 300,000 feet but capable of orbital flight.
The ARDC’s Lieutenant Colonel Carleton Strathy, a division chief and a strong advocate of program consolidation, took the proposed plan to Air Force Headquarters. He won endorsement from Brigadier General Don Zimmerman, Deputy
Top and side views of Dyna-Soar. (U. S. Air Force)
Director of Development Planning, and from Brigadier General Homer Boushey, Deputy Director of Research and Development. NACA’s John Crowley, Associate Director for Research, gave strong approval to the proposed test vehicle, viewing it as a logical step beyond the X-15- On 25 November, having secured support from his superiors, Boushey issued Development Directive 94, allocating $3 million to proceed with more detailed studies following a selection of contractors.10
The new concept represented another step in the sequence that included Eugen Sanger’s Silbervogel, his suborbital skipping vehicle, and among live rocket craft, the X-15- It was widely viewed as a tribute to Sanger, who was still living. It took the name Dyna-Soar, which drew on “dynamic soaring,” Sanger’s name for his skipping technique, and which also stood for “dynamic ascent and soaring flight,” or boost – glide. Boeing and Martin emerged as the finalists in June 1958, with their roles being defined in November 1959- Boeing was to take responsibility for the winged spacecraft. Martin, described as the associate contractor, was to provide the Titan missile that would serve as the launch vehicle.11
The program now demanded definition of flight modes, configuration, structure, and materials. The name of Sanger was on everyone’s lips, but his skipping flight path had already proven to be uncompetitive. He and his colleague Bredt had treated its dynamics, but they had not discussed the heating. That task fell to NACA’s Allen and Eggers, along with their colleague Stanford Neice.
In 1954, following their classic analysis of ballistic re-entry, Eggers and Allen turned their attention to comparison of this mode with boost-glide and skipping entries. They assumed the use of active cooling and found that boost-glide held the advantage:
The glide vehicle developing lift-drag ratios in the neighborhood of 4 is far superior to the ballistic vehicle in ability to convert velocity into range. It has the disadvantage of having far more heat convected to it; however, it has the compensating advantage that this heat can in the main be radiated back to the atmosphere. Consequently, the mass of coolant material may be kept relatively low.
A skip vehicle offered greater range than the alternatives, in line with Sanger’s advocacy of this flight mode. But it encountered more severe heating, along with high aerodynamic loads that necessitated a structurally strong and therefore heavy vehicle. Extra weight meant extra coolant, with the authors noting that “ultimately the coolant is being added to cool coolant. This situation must obviously be avoided.” They concluded that “the skip vehicle is thought to be the least promising of the three types of hypervelocity vehicle considered here.”12
Following this comparative assessment of flight modes, Eggers worked with his colleague Clarence Syvertson to address the issue of optimum configuration. This issue had been addressed for the X-15; it was a mid-wing airplane that generally resembled the high-performance fighters of its era. In treating Dyna-Soar, following the Robo review of mid-1957, NACA’s Robert Graham wrote that “high-wing, midwing and low-wing configurations were proposed. All had a highly swept wing, and a small angle cone as the fuselage or body.” This meant that while there was agreement on designing the fuselage, there was no standard way to design the wing.13
Eggers and Syvertson proceeded by treating the design problem entirely as an exercise in aerodynamics. They concluded that the highest values of L/D were attainable by using a high-wing concept with the fuselage mounted below as a slender half-cone and the wing forming a flat top. Large fins at the wing tips, canted sharply downward, directed the airflow under the wings downward and increased the lift. Working with a hypersonic wind tunnel at NACA-Ames, they measured a maximum L/D of 6.65 at Mach 5, in good agreement with a calculated value of 6.85-14
This configuration had attractive features, not the least of which was that the base of its half-cone could readily accommodate a rocket engine. Still, it was not long before other specialists began to argue that it was upside down. Instead of having a flat top with the fuselage below, it was to be flipped to place the wing below the fuselage, giving it a flat bottom. This assertion came to the forefront during Becker’s HYWARDS study, which identified its preferred velocity as 18,000 feet per second. His colleague Peter Korycinski worked with Becker to develop heating analyses of flat-top and flat-bottom candidates, with Roger Anderson and others within Langleys Structures Division providing estimates for the weight of thermal protection.
A simple pair of curves, plotted on graph paper, showed that under specified assumptions the flat-bottom weight at that velocity was 21,400 pounds and was increasing at a modest rate at higher speeds. The flat-top weight was 27,600 pounds and was rising steeply. Becker wrote that the flat-bottom craft placed its fuselage “in the relatively cool shielded region on the top or lee side of the wing—i. e., the wing was used in effect as a partial heat shield for the fuselage— This ‘flat-bottomed’ design had the least possible critical heating area…and this translated into least circulating coolant, least area of radiative heat shields, and least total thermal protection in flight.”15
These approaches—flat-top at Ames, flat-bottom at Langley—brought a debate between these centers that continued through 1957. At Ames, the continuing strong interest in high L/D reflected an ongoing emphasis on excellent supersonic aerodynamics for military aircraft, which needed high L/D as a matter of course. To ease the heating problem, Ames held for a time to a proposed speed of 11,000 feet per second, slower than the Langley concept but lighter in weight and more attainable in technology while still offering a considerable leap beyond the X-15. Officials at NACA diplomatically described the Ames and Langley HYWARDS concepts respectively as “high L/D” and “low heating,” but while the debate continued, there remained no standard approach to the design of wings for a hypersonic glider.16
There was a general expectation that such a craft would require active cooling. Bell Aircraft, which had been studying Bomi, Brass Bell, and lately Robo, had the most experience in the conceptual design of such arrangements. Its Brass Bell of 1957, designed to enter its glide at 18,000 feet per second and 170,000 feet in altitude, featured an actively cooled insulated hot structure. The primary or load-bearing structure was of aluminum and relied on cooling in a closed-loop arrangement that used water-glycol as the coolant. Wing leading edges had their own closed-loop cooling system that relied on a mix of sodium and potassium metals. Liquid hydrogen, pumped initially to 1,000 pounds per square inch, flowed first through a heat exchanger and cooled the heated water-glycol, then proceeded to a second heat exchanger to cool the hot sodium-potassium. In an alternate design concept, this gas cooled the wing leading edges directly, with no intermediate liquid-metal coolant loop. The warmed hydrogen ran a turbine within an onboard auxiliary power unit and then was exhausted overboard. The leading edges reached a maximum temperature of 1,400°F, for which Inconel X was a suitable material.17
During August of that year Becker and Korycinski launched a new series of studies that further examined the heating and thermal protection of their flat-bottom
glider. They found that for a glider of global range, flying with angle of attack of 45 degrees, an entry trajectory near the upper limit of permissible altitudes gave peak uncooled skin temperatures of 2,000°F. This appeared achievable with improved metallic or ceramic hot structures. Accordingly, no coolant at all was required!18
This conclusion, published in 1959, influenced the configuration of subsequent boost-glide vehicles—Dyna-Soar, the space shuttle—much as the Eggers-Allen paper of 1953 had defined the blunt-body shape for ballistic entry. Preliminary and unpublished results were in hand more than a year prior to publication, and when the prospect emerged of eliminating active cooling, the concepts that could do this were swept into prominence. They were of the flat-bottom type, with Dyna-Soar being the first to proceed into mainstream development.
This uncooled configuration proved robust enough to accommodate substantial increases in flight speed and performance. In 1959 Herbert York, the Defense Director of Research and Engineering, stated that Dyna-Soar was to fly at 15,000 miles per hour. This was well above the planned speed of Brass Bell but still below orbital velocity. During subsequent years the booster changed from Martin’s Titan I to the more capable Titan II and then to the powerful Titan III-C, which could easily boost it to orbit. A new plan, approved in December 1961, dropped suborbital missions and called for “the early attainment of orbital flight.” Subsequent planning anticipated that Dyna-Soar would reach orbit with the Titan III upper stage, execute several circuits of the Earth, and then come down from orbit by using this stage as a retrorocket.19
After that, though, advancing technical capabilities ran up against increasingly stringent operational requirements. The Dyna-Soar concept had grown out of HYWARDS, being intended initially to serve as a testbed for the reconnaissance
Full-scale model of Dyna-Soar, on display at an Air Force exhibition in 1962. The scalloped pattern on the base was intended to suggest Sanger’s skipping entry. (Boeing Company archives)
boost-glider Brass Bell and for the manned rocket-powered bomber Robo. But the rationale for both projects became increasingly questionable during the early 1960s. The hypersonic Brass Bell gave way to a new concept, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), which was to fly in orbit as a small space station while astronauts took reconnaissance photos. Robo fell out of the picture completely, for the success of the Minuteman ICBM, which used solid propellant, established such missiles as the nations prime strategic force. Some people pursued new concepts that continued to hold out hope for Dyna-Soar applications, with satellite interception standing in the forefront. The Air Force addressed this with studies of its Saint project, but Dyna-Soar proved unsuitable for such a mission.20
Dyna-Soar was a potentially superb technology demonstrator, but Defense Secretary Robert McNamara took the view that it had to serve a military role in its own right or lead to a follow-on program with clear military application. The cost of Dyna-Soar was approaching a billion dollars, and in October 1963 he declared that he could not justify spending such a sum if it was a dead-end program with no ultimate purpose. He canceled it on 10 December, noting that it was not to serve as a cargo rocket, could not carry substantial payloads, and could not stay in orbit for
Artist’s rendering showing Dyna-Soar in orbit. (Boeing Company archives)
long durations. He approved MOL as a new program, thereby giving the Air Force continuing reason to hope that it would place astronauts in orbit, but stated that Dyna-Soar would serve only “a very narrow objective.”21
At that moment the program called for production of 10 flight vehicles, and Boeing had completed some 42 percent of the necessary tasks. McNamara’s decision therefore was controversial, particularly because the program still had high – level supporters. These included Eugene Zuckert, Air Force Secretary; Alexander Flax, Assistant Secretary for Research and Development; and Brockway McMillan, Zuckert’s Under Secretary and Flax’s predecessor as Assistant Secretary. Still, McNamara gave more attention to Harold Brown, the Defense Director of Research and Engineering, who made the specific proposal that McNamara accepted: to cancel Dyna-Soar and proceed instead with MOL.22
Dyna-Soar never flew. The program had expended $410 million when canceled, but the schedule still called for another $373 million, and the vehicle was still some two and a half years away from its first flight. Even so, its technology remained available for further development, contributing to the widening prospects for reentry that marked the era.23