The Advent of NASP
With test engines well on their way in development, there was the prospect of experimental aircraft that might exercise them in flight test. Such a vehicle might come forth as a successor to Number 66671, the X-l 5 that had been slated to fly the
HRE. An aircraft of this type indeed took shape before long, with the designation X-30. However, it did not originate purely as a technical exercise. Its background lay in presidential politics.
The 1980 election took place less than a year after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter had placed strong hope in arms control and had negotiated a major treaty with his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev. But the incursion into Afghanistan took Carter by surprise and destroyed the climate of international trust that was essential for Senate ratification of this treaty. Reagan thus came to the White House with arms-control prospects on hold and with the Cold War once more in a deep freeze. He responded by launching an arms buildup that particularly included new missiles for Europe.29
Peace activist Randall Forsberg replied by taking the lead in calling for a nuclear freeze, urging the superpowers to halt the “testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons” as an important step toward “lessening the risk of nuclear war.” His arguments touched a nerve within the general public, for within two years, support for a freeze topped 70 percent. Congressman Edward Markey introduced a nuclear-freeze resolution in the House of Representatives. It failed by a margin of only one vote, with Democratic gains in the 1982 mid-term elections making passage a near certainty. By the end of that year half the states in the Union adopted their own freeze resolutions, as did more than 800 cities, counties, and towns.30
To Reagan, a freeze was anathema. He declared that it “would be largely unverifi – able…. It would reward the Soviets for their massive military buildup while preventing us from modernizing our aging and increasingly vulnerable forces.” He asserted that Moscow held a “present margin of superiority” and that a freeze would leave America “prohibited from catching up.”31
With the freeze ascendant, Admiral James Watkins, the Chief of Naval Operations, took a central role in seeking an approach that might counter its political appeal. Exchanges with Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, deputies within the National Security Council, drew his thoughts toward missile defense. Then in January 1983 he learned that the Joint Chiefs were to meet with Reagan on 11 February. As preparation, he met with a group of advisors that included the physicist Edward Teller.
Trembling with passion, Teller declared that there was enormous promise in a new concept: the x-ray laser. This was a nuclear bomb that was to produce intense beams of x-rays that might be aimed to destroy enemy missiles. Watkins agreed that the broad concept of missile defense indeed was attractive. It could introduce a new prospect: that America might counter the Soviet buildup, not with a buildup of its own but by turning to its strength in advanced technology.
Watkins succeeded in winning support from his fellow Joint Chiefs, including the chairman, General John Vessey. Vessey then gave Reagan a half-hour briefing at the 11 February meeting, as he drew extensively on the views of Watkins. Reagan showed strong interest and told the Chiefs that he wanted a written proposal. Robert McFarlane, Deputy to the National Security Advisor, already had begun to explore concepts for missile defense. During the next several weeks his associates took the lead in developing plans for a program and budget.32
On 23 March 1983 Reagan spoke to the nation in a televised address. He dealt broadly with issues of nuclear weaponry. Toward the end of the speech, he offered new thoughts:
“Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today.
What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U. S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?…
I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”33
The ensuing Strategic Defense Initiative never deployed weapons that could shoot down a missile. Yet from the outset it proved highly effective in shooting down the nuclear freeze. That movement reached its high-water mark in May 1983, as a strengthened Democratic majority in the House indeed passed Markeys resolution. But the Senate was still held by Republicans, and the freeze went no further. The SDI gave everyone something new to talk about. Reagans speech helped him to regain the initiative, and in 1984 he swept to re-election with an overwhelming majority.34
The SDI brought the prospect of a major upsurge in traffic to orbit, raising the prospect of a flood of new military payloads. SDI supporters asserted that some one hundred orbiting satellites could provide an effective strategic defense, although the Union of Concerned Scientists, a center of criticism, declared that the number would be as large as 2,400. Certainly, though, an operational missile defense was likely to place new and extensive demands on means for access to space.
Within the Air Force Systems Command, there already was interest in a next – generation single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle that was to use the existing Space Shuttle Main Engine. Lieutenant General Lawrence Skantze, Commander of the
Air Force Systems Command’s Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD), launched work in this area early in 1982 by directing the ASD planning staff to conduct an in-house study of post-shuttle launch vehicles. It then went forward under the leadership of Stanley Tremaine, the ASD’s Deputy for Development Planning, who christened these craft as Trans – atmospheric Vehicles. In December 1984 Tremaine set up aTAV Program Office, directed by Lieutenant Colonel Vince Rausch.35
Moreover, General Skantze was advancing into high-level realms of command, where he could make his voice heard. In August 1982 he went to Air Force Headquarters, where he took the post of Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development, and Acquisition. This gave him responsibility for all Air Force programs in these areas. In October 1983 he pinned on his fourth star as he took an appointment as Air Force Vice Chief of Staff. In August 1984 he became Commander of the Air Force Systems Command.36
He accepted these Washington positions amid growing military disenchantment with the space shuttle. Experience was showing that it was costly and required a long time to prepare for launch. There also was increasing concern for its safety, with a 1982 Rand Corporation study flatly predicting that as many as three shuttle orbiters would be lost to accidents during the life of the program. The Air Force was unwilling to place all its eggs in such a basket. In February 1984 Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger approved a document stating that total reliance on the shuttle “represents an unacceptable national security risk.” Air Force Secretary Edward Aldridge responded by announcing that he would remove 10 payloads from the shuttle beginning in 1988 and would fly them on expendables.37
Just then the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was coming to the forefront as an important new center for studies of TAV-like vehicles. DARPA was already reviving the field of flight research with its X-29, which featured a forward – swept wing along with an innovative array of control systems and advanced materials. Robert Cooper, DARPA’s director, held a strong interest in such projects and saw them as a way to widen his agency’s portfolio. He found encouragement during
1982 as a group of ramjet specialists met with Richard De Lauer, the Undersecretary of Defense Research and Engineering. They urged him to keep the field alive with enough new funds to prevent them from having to break up their groups. De Lauer responded with letters that he sent to the Navy, Air Force, and DARPA, asking them to help.38
This provided an opening for Tony duPont, who had designed the HRE. He had taken a strong interest in combined-cycle concepts and decided that the scram – lace was the one he preferred. It was to eliminate the big booster that every ramjet needed, by using an ejector, but experimental versions weren’t very powerful. DuPont thought he could do better by using the HRE as a point of departure, as he added an auxiliary inlet for LACE and a set of ejector nozzles upstream of the combustor. He filed for a patent on his engine in 1970 and won it two years later.39
In 1982 he still believed in it, and he learned that Anthony Tether was the DARPA man who had been attending TAV meetings. The two men met several times, with Tether finally sending him up to talk with Cooper. Cooper listened to duPont and sent him over to Robert Williams, one of DARPA’s best aerodynami- cists. Cooper declares that Williams “was the right guy; he knew the most in this area. This wasn’t his specialty, but he was an imaginative fellow.”40
Williams had come up within the Navy, working at its David Taylor research center. His specialty was helicopters; he had initiated studies of the X-wing, which was to stop its rotor in midair and fly as a fixed-wing aircraft. He also was interested in high-speed flight. He had studied a missile that was to fight what the Navy
called the “outer air battle,” which might use a scramjet. This had brought him into discussions with Fred Billig, who also worked for the Navy and helped him to learn his hypersonic propulsion. He came to DARPA in 1981 and joined its Tactical Technologies Office, where he became known as the man to see if anyone was interested in scramjets.41
Williams now phoned duPont and gave him a test: “I’ve got a very ambitious problem for you. If you think the airplane can do this, perhaps we can promote a program. Cooper has asked me to check you out.” The problem was to achieve single-stage-to-orbit flight with a scramjet and a suite of heat-resistant materials, and duPont recalls his response: “I stayed up all night; I was more and more intrigued with this. Finally I called him back: ‘Okay, Bob, it’s not impossible. Now what?”’42
DuPont had been using a desktop computer, and Williams and Tether responded to his impromptu calculations by giving him $30,000 to prepare a report. Soon Williams was broadening his circle of scramjet specialists by talking with old-timers such as Arthur Thomas, who had been conducting similar studies a quarter-century earlier, and who quickly became skeptical. DuPont had patented his propulsion concept, but Thomas saw it differently: “I recognized it as a Marquardt engine. Tony called it the duPont cycle, which threw me off, but I recognized it as our engine. He claimed he’d improved it.” In fact, “he’d made a mistake in calculating the heat capacity of air. So his engine looked so much better than ours.”
Thomas nevertheless signed on to contribute to the missionary work, joining Williams and duPont in giving presentations to other conceptual-design groups. At Lockheed and Boeing, they found themselves talking to other people who knew scramjets. As Thomas recalls, “The people were amazed at the component efficiencies that had been assumed in the study. They got me aside and asked if I really believed it. Were these things achievable? Tony was optimistic everywhere: on mass fraction, on air drag of the vehicle, on inlet performance, on nozzle performance, on combustor performance. The whole thing, across the board. But what salved our conscience was that even if these weren’t all achieved, we still could have something worth while. Whatever we got would still be exciting.”43
Williams recalls that in April 1984, “I put together a presentation for Cooper called ‘Resurrection of the Aerospaceplane.’ He had one hour; I had 150 slides. He came in, sat down, and said Go. We blasted through those slides. Then there was silence. Cooper said, Т want to spend a day on this.’” After hearing additional briefings, he approved a $5.5-million effort known as Copper Canyon, which brought an expanded program of studies and analyses.44
Copper Canyon represented an attempt to show how the SDI could achieve its access to space, and a number of high-level people responded favorably when Cooper asked to give a briefing. He and Williams made a presentation to George Keyworth, Reagan’s science advisor. They then briefed the White House Science
Council. Keyworth recalls that “here were people who normally would ask questions for hours. But after only about a half-hour, David Packard said, ‘What’s keeping us? Let’s do it!”’ Packard was Deputy Secretary of Defense.45
During 1985, as Copper Canyon neared conclusion, the question arose of expanding the effort with support from NASA and the Air Force. Cooper attended a classified review and as he recalls, “I went into that meeting with a high degree of skepticism.” But technical presentations brought him around: “For each major problem, there were three or four plausible ways to deal with it. That’s extraordinary. Usually it’s—‘Well, we don’t know exactly how we’ll do it, but we’ll do it.’ Or, ‘We have a way to do it, which may work.’ It was really a surprise to me; I couldn’t pick any obvious holes in what they had done. I could find no reason why they couldn’t go forward.”46
Further briefings followed. Williams gave one to Admiral Watkins, whom Cooper describes as “very supportive, said he would commit the Navy to support of the program.” Then in July, Cooper accompanied Williams as they gave a presentation to General Skantze.
They displayed their viewgraphs and in Cooper’s words, “He took one look at our concept and said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I meant. I invented that idea.’” Not even the stars on his shoulders could give him that achievement, but his endorsement reflected the fact that he was dissatisfied with the TAV studies. He had come away appreciating that he needed something better than rocket engines—and here it was. “His enthusiasm came from the fact that this was all he had anticipated,” Cooper continues. “He felt as if he owned it.”
Skantze wanted more than viewgraphs. He wanted to see duPont’s engine in operation. A small version was under test at GASL, without LACE but definitely with its ejector, and one technician had said, “This engine really does put out static thrust, which isn’t obvious for a ramjet.” Skantze saw the demonstration and came away impressed. Then, Williams adds, “the Air Force system began to move with
the speed of a spaceplane. In literally a week and a half, the entire Air Force senior command was briefed.”
Later that year the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, granted a briefing. With him were members of his staff, along with senior people from NASA and the military service. After giving the presentation, Williams recalls that “there was Initial version of the duPont engine under test at GASL. silence ІП the ГООГП The Sec-
retary said, ‘Interesting,’ and turned to his staff. Of course, all the groundwork had been laid. All of the people there had been briefed, and we could go for a yes-or-no decision. We had essentially total unanimity around the table, and he decided that the program would proceed as a major Defense Department initiative. With this, we moved immediately to issue requests for proposal to industry.”47
In January 1986 the TAV effort was formally terminated. At Wright-Patterson AFB, the staff of its program office went over to a new Joint Program Office that now supported what was called the National Aerospace Plane. It brought together representatives from the Air Force, Navy, and NASA. Program management remained at DARPA, where Williams retained his post as the overall manager.48
In this fashion, NASP became a significant federal initiative. It benefited from a rare alignment of the political stars, for Reagan’s SDI cried out for better launch vehicles and Skantze was ready to offer them. Nor did funding appear to be a problem, at least initially. Reagan had shown favor to aerospace through such acts as approving NASA’s space station in 1984. Pentagon spending had surged, and DAR – PA’s Cooper was asserting that an X-30 might be built for an affordable cost.
Yet NASP was a leap into the unknown. Its scramjets now were in the forefront but not because the Langley research had shown that they were ready. Instead they were a focus of hope because Reagan wanted SDI, SDI needed better access to space, and Skantze wanted something better than rockets.
The people who were making Air Force decisions, such as Skantze, did not know much about these engines. The people who did know them, such as Thomas, were well aware of duPont’s optimism. There thus was abundant opportunity for high hope to give way to hard experience.