The basic, modern rocket spaceplane concept was bom in the 1930s. It involved a hypersonic rocket aircraft launched by a rail with the assistance of a rocket sled, and capable of flying almost around the globe by using a suborbital trajectory in which it repeatedly bounced off the upper layers of the atmosphere, like a flat stone skipping over the surface of a pond. This ‘rocket glider’ idea was way ahead of its time, and in fact is still ahead of our time. The ‘SilbervogeP (German for ‘Silverbird’) was the brainchild of Austrian-German aerospace engineer Eugen Sanger. He first published
M. van Pelt, Rocketing into the Future: The History and Technology of Rocket Planes, Springer Praxis Books, DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-3200-5 8, © Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012
the idea in his 1933 book Raketenflugtechnik (Rocketflight Technology). In fact, this work was an elaborated version of his original plan for a doctoral dissertation, but his university had advised him to find a more classical topic and he subsequently got his degree for a study of aircraft wings. Rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth had shown that a rocket plane could only hope to achieve a long range by starting with a very steep ascent, leveling off at high altitude in order to use the remaining propellant to attain its maximum speed in the thin air, and then glide back down for the remainder of its flight. Sanger’s calculations led him to the same conclusions. His initial rocket plane design involved an aircraft shaped like an elongated bullet with large but thin double-wedged wings (like those of the X-2 subsequently built in the US), a small single tail fin and two small horizontal stabilizers. It bore little resemblance to the blunt-shaped biplanes of that time.
Together with Austrian-German mathematician and physicist Irene Bredt, who he would marry in 1951, Sanger further iterated the design during the 1930s and early 1940s. Initially they intended their plane to transport passengers at hypersonic speeds all over the globe but he also tried to pitch the idea as an intercontinental bomber to the Austrian military in 1933. Not surprisingly, in an age where transonic jet airliners were still science fiction the proposal was rejected, primarily because of the risk of the rocket engine exploding.
The German Luftwaffe, however, did see value in a ‘RaketenBomber’ (Rocket Bomber), as well as the basic rocket engine development and testing Sanger was already conducting at the University of Vienna. Not wanting to be outdone by the Wehrmacht (Army) and its rocket development by von Braun’s team, the Luftwaffe in 1936 invited Sanger to establish a secret rocket propulsion research institute in Trauen, Germany. It was named “aircraft test site Trauen” to hide its true nature, and Sanger was even given a fake job at the University of Braunschweig so that people wouldn’t wonder where he was working. Like Wemher von Braun, Sanger funded his work via the military as this was the only source available in Germany during the war. Under his leadership, the Trauen site quickly became an impressive laboratory with a wind tunnel, a rail launch track test rig, and a large rocket engine test stand. Sophisticated experimental rocket engines that ran on fuel oil and liquid oxygen were developed and tested, including components for a 1,000,000 Newton engine intended to propel the Silbervogel. An innovative feature of Sanger’s engine designs was the cooling of the combustion chamber by circulating propellant around it. This cooling strategy, sometimes called the ‘Sanger-Bredt design’, was actually implemented in early rocket engines such as that of the A4/V2, and in most liquid propellant rocket engines since then (including, as we have seen, those used to propel aircraft). For the engine of the Silbervogel, Sanger proposed to use a water loop to cool the massive nozzle and combustion chamber because the propellants he intended to use (fuel oil and liquid oxygen) were poor coolants. The water would be turned into superheated steam by the high temperatures in the engine and then be fed into a turbine to run the propellant pumps and the water coolant pump. After the turbine, the water would be condensed and pumped back into the cooling loop. But having three types of liquids (fuel, oxidizer and coolant) and all the associated pipes, valves and tanks made it a relatively complicated engine.
Although the Nazi government was interested in the Silbervogel as a possible ‘Amerika Bomber’, for which a number of more traditional aircraft designs were also developed, it was clear that the concept was much too advanced for the technologies available in the 1940s and that the bomber would never be ready in time to affect the war. Even Sanger himself predicted that it would take at least 20 years to make his machine operationally useful. The institute at Trauen was closed down in 1942 when the military gave priority to the VI pulsejet bomb and A4/V2 rocket developments at Peenemiinde, because these would be able to be introduced sooner and hence make a greater contribution to the war effort.
Sanger and Bredt transferred to the DFS institute in order to continue their studies and experiments on ramjet technology. But the Silbervogel never attracted sufficient support and funding, and they ended up spending most of the war developing basic rocket engine technology and a design for a ramjet fighter that never got to fly either. They nevertheless always kept thinking about their favorite concept in private and in 1944 summarized all their design and experiment work in a secret report titled ‘Uber einen Raketenantrieb fur Fernbomber’, subsequently translated and published in the US as ‘A Rocket Drive For Long Range Bombers’. The concept they finally arrived at was a 100,000 kg (220,000 pound) rocket plane that would be 28 meters long with a wingspan of 15 meters. It featured a pressurized cockpit for a single pilot near the nose, a central bomb bay, and the main rocket engine as well as two smaller auxiliary engines in the tail. The rest of the fuselage would mostly consist of two parallel rows of tanks containing a total of 90,000 kg (200,000 pounds) of liquid oxygen and fuel oil. Two short wedge-shaped wings with swept-back leading edges and a horizontal tailplane that had a small fin on each tip give the Silbervogel a conventional-looking rocket plane shape. However, the design incorporated the innovative idea of having the fuselage itself generate lift through its ‘flat iron’ shape, hence acting as a partial lifting body.
A powerful rocket sled would be used to help the Silbervogel take off from a long rail track. The sled’s rocket engines would not need to be very efficient, since they would only operate for a brief time and would not leave the track with the plane. For the sled, trading efficiency and thus propellant weight for more brute power in order to get the Silbervogel going would involve little penalty. Sanger proposed to use von Braun’s A4/V2 rocket engines. The starting speed given by the innovative rail launch system resulted in a smaller, lighter spaceplane requiring a less powerful engine and smaller wings in comparison to a similar vehicle that had to take off on its own (at higher speeds the same amount of lift can be provided with smaller wings). The rail system also meant that the Silbervogel would only need a light undercarriage for its glide landing with empty tanks, thereby further reducing its weight. Furthermore, the rail sled would make detailed knowledge of transonic flight behavior unnecessary, as it would push the plane through this mysterious region of aerodynamics whilst it was still firmly connected to the track (as mentioned above, transonic aerodynamics were not properly understood until well after the war). The rail launch system would limit the possible launch azimuths, but Sanger suggested that it could be used with either end as the starting point. As Germany’s enemies were primarily to the west (the US) and the east (the USSR), a single launch track
Illustration of the Silbervogel in a translated version of the original 1944 report.
aligned east-west would probably have been adequate. The spaceplane would be able to alter its flight direction after leaving the track, but the larger the maneuver the more costly it would be in terms of energy and thus range. The aircraft, the rocket sled, the track and the other infrastructure on the ground would all be reusable.
The 1944 Silbervogel design was to use a 6,000,000 Newton thrust rocket sled to accelerate to a speed of 1,800 km per hour (1,100 miles per hour) on a rail track 3 km (2 mile) long. As this would occur in only 11 seconds it would expose the plane and pilot to a substantial but certainly manageable acceleration of 4.6 G. Leaving the first stage sled behind (which would have brakes to rapidly decelerate to avoid flying off the track) the Silbervogel would climb unpowered to an altitude of 1.7 km (5,600 feet) while turning into the intended direction of flight, then continue gliding up at an angle of 30 degrees. At an altitude of 3.7 km (12,000 feet), 25 seconds after take-off, the onboard 1,000,000 Newton rocket engine would fire and in about 8 minutes push the aircraft up to an altitude of 150 km (500,000 feet). Leveling off, the Silbervogel would then continue to accelerate to a speed of 22,000 km per hour (14,000 miles per hour). At the end of its powered run the aircraft would have consumed almost all of its propellant (90% of its take-off weight) and under the constant thrust of its rocket engine reached its peak acceleration of 10 G, which is about the tolerance limit for a trained pilot. In the climbing phase of the flight the G would build up gradually, as gravity would partially counteract the rocket’s thrust, but in level flight the increase from 7 G to 10 G would occur in a mere 20 seconds. Nevertheless, the pilot would sit upright with his back to the rocket engine so that his heart would not have to pump
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Illustration of the Silbervogel rail launch system in a translated version of the original
blood into his brain against the direction of the acceleration. Knowledge gained from Luftwaffe acceleration experiments on human volunteers and drugged primates led Sanger to believe that such acceleration would not cause a well-trained pilot seated in this position to black out.
The ultimately attained speed would be some 6,000 km per hour (3,800 miles per hour) short of that required to enter orbit, so after reaching its highest altitude the Silbervogel would gradually descend into the stratosphere. However, at an altitude of 40 km (130,000 feet) the increasing air density would generate enough lift to cause the plane to “bounce” back up to about 125 km (410,000 feet) altitude. Part airplane, part satellite, the Silbervogel would repeat this profile a number of times, with each successive bounce getting shallower and covering less distance horizontally owing to the continuous loss of speed resulting from the aerodynamic drag. The aircraft would heat up each time it hit the atmosphere but have time to cool down (by radiating the heat away) during each hop back into space.
The pilot would not have much window space to admire the view because to keep the external shape smooth, and probably also the difficulty of producing windows for extreme temperatures, Sanger foresaw the pilot being provided with side view slits and “optical aids” (presumably periscopes). However, for landing, he noted, “a kind of detachable windshield can be used, since then the pressurization of the cabin and maintenance of the bullet-shape are unimportant”. Exactly what this would have involved is not entirely clear, but it seems to suggest the pilot was to open the cockpit and stick his head out when approaching the airfield; a rather awkward and archaic way to land a hypersonic spaceplane.
Sanger’s baseline hypersonic bomber, equipped with a rocket engine capable of a specific impulse of 300 seconds, would have dropped a rather small bomb of 300 kg (650 pounds) on New York, then continued its unpowered hop-fly over the continent to land in Japanese-held territory in the Pacific. The Silverbird could only lay a small explosive egg, but the psychological and hence political impact of a German bomb of any size dropped on US soil would have been substantial (as was the first US raid on Japan). With a more efficient engine and/or closer targets, the bomb load could have been increased to several metric tons. After landing as a glider (like the Space Shuttle Orbiter) the aircraft would be re-launched back to Germany, dropping another bomb on the way. From point to point, the range would be a spectacular 19,000 to
24,0 km (12,000 to 15,000 miles). Sanger proposed that it would be possible to stretch this distance even further and enable a landing back at the launch site if the efficiency of the rocket engine could be increased. One possibility to achieve this would be to add metal particles to the fuel in order to increase the exhaust temperature, improving the specific impulse to 400 seconds and so either producing higher thrust with the same propellant consumption or running the engines at the same thrust for longer without increasing the tank volume. The basic idea was sound, because metal particles were later added to solid propellants to increase the performance of boosters such as those used by the Space Shuttle. However, for liquid propellant engines it turned out to be impractical since particles can only be kept well mixed with liquid propellants if they are turned into a gel, and doing that leads to all manner of complications.
The feasibility of bouncing off the atmosphere was inadvertently demonstrated in 1962 by Neil Armstrong when flying the X-15. He came down from a high altitude with an overly steep angle of attack (i. e. with the aircraft’s nose too far up), skipped back up and as a consequence severely overshot his planned landing site at Edwards. In fact, he flew all the way to Los Angeles. However, he managed to make a gliding turn with a huge radius and thus fly back to base. Although he bounced only once, he proved the extended range of a Silbervogel-type trajectory. Crewed space capsules returning to Earth can use similar ‘skip re-entry’ trajectories, typically bouncing only once. The Apollo capsules were capable of flying such a ‘skipping’ trajectory, but it was never an operational necessity. However, the Soviet unmanned Zond prototype lunar mission capsules did demonstrate it successfully during several flights.
A postwar analysis of the aerothermodynamics of the Silbervogel discovered that Sanger and Bredt had made an error in the heat load calculations: during the first reentry into the atmosphere the structure of the spaceplane would have become much hotter than they predicted and consequently would have needed additional protection in the form of heat shield material which would have made the vehicle much heavier than the original design, leaving little room in terms of weight for people or bombs.
After the war Sanger and Bredt were recruited by the French government to work on missiles and ramjets. In 1949 Sanger founded the Federation Astronautique, and in 1951 he was made the first president of the International Astronautical Federation that hosts the annual International Astronautical Congress. Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, Stalin had become fascinated by the Silbervogel concept, which had come to his attention through three captured copies of Sanger and Bredt’s highly secret 1944 report. Stalin saw it as a possible means of attacking the United States because the advent of nuclear weapons meant that the puny bomb load of Sanger’s design could now yield a very powerful punch. In 1947 Stalin sent his son Vasily together with aviation experts Serov and Tokayev to either win over or kidnap Sanger and Bredt and bring them to Russia to further develop their concept. However, Vasily overly enjoyed his playboy life in Paris and Tokayev defected to the British and blew the operation, so nothing came of it. By then, however, the design bureau NII-1 NKAP, established by Mstislav Keldysh in 1946 specifically to work on a Soviet version of the Silbervogel, had further elaborated on the idea presented in the captured report. By 1947 they had concluded that with the rocket engines and structures which either already existed or were likely to become available in the near future, some 95% of the initial weight of the spaceplane would have to be propellant; Sanger and Bredt had calculated ‘only’ 90%. This would leave very little weight for the structure, tanks, engines, and other essential equipment. The poor ratio between take-off weight and structural weight is a well known issue for any spaceplane concept, even today, and particularly so for a pure rocket propelled vehicle.
The Russians decided that ramjets using atmospheric oxygen instead of internal oxidizer would make the design more feasible: the weight limitation of the vehicle without propellant (i. e. the dry weight limit) would increase from 5 to 22%, while the lower maximum speed in comparison to the Silbervogel would still give the plane an intercontinental range of 12,000 km (7,500 miles). This so-called ‘Keldysh Bomber’ would have a take-off weight of about 100,000 kg (220,000 pounds). It would start with an 11 second run along a track that was 3 km (2 mile) long, pushed by a rocket sled powered by five or six liquid oxygen/kerosene RKDS-100 rocket engines with a combined thrust of 6,000,000 Newton. The bomber would climb to an altitude of 20 km (66,000 feet) and accelerate to Mach 3 using a single RKDS-100 and a pair of wingtip-mounted kerosene ramjets. The ramjets would then flame out due to a lack of oxygen and possibly be jettisoned to shed their weight. Next, the rocket engine would push the vehicle to a speed of 18,000 km per hour (11,000 miles per hour) and up into space, after which there would be a series of atmospheric skips just like the Silbervogel. It was estimated that developments in rocket and aircraft technologies would make it possible to start serious development of the design in the mid-1950s. But by then the concept of the intercontinental ballistic missile, which was easier and cheaper to develop and did not require a far-away landing site, had made the Keldysh Bomber obsolete.
Walter Domberger, the former head of A4/V2 development in Germany, tried to interest the US military in the Silbervogel concept when he joined Bell Aircraft in 1950, carefully calling it the ‘Antipodal Bomber’ rather than its wartime moniker of the ‘Amerika Bomber’ (‘antipodal’ meaning two sites exactly opposite each other on the Earth’s surface; more or less the Silbervogel’s maximum flight distance). But the sheer technical complexity of advanced materials, hypersonic aerothermodynamics and guidance accuracy, together with the doubtful military value of such an aircraft, meant that a real project never materialized. Nevertheless Dornberger’s lobbying did eventually lead to the X-15 rocket plane, the X-20 Dyna-Soar concept and ultimately the Space Shuttle. (The Shuttle is not a true rocket plane and it doesn’t use a skip reentry trajectory but it does resemble Sanger’s design in that it has a flat base, straight fuselage sides, a rounded top, and a series of massively powerful rocket engines in the back.) The X-15 and the Shuttle incorporated several features that Sanger had not foreseen but whose inclusion would have increased both the weight and complexity of the Silbervogel. One example is a reaction control system to control the spaceplane outside the atmosphere and to properly orientate it for re-entry. Another is the need for precise guidance control sensors and electronics. Although one X-15 pilot managed to fly a manual re-entry when his guidance control system failed, for a safe re-entry both the X-15 and the Shuttle required guidance computers that were not available in the early 1950s. Such assistance would certainly have been required for the complicated bouncing trajectory of the Silbervogel.
As a passenger transporter, the original role Sanger intended for his rocket plane, the Silbervogel would have been much too complex and expensive because of its huge propellant consumption, its elaborate take-off and landing infrastructure, and its payload mass and volume allowing only a few passengers. These considerations still plague recent concepts for hypersonic airliners such as the US National Aerospace Plane (NASP) of the late 1980s. The fact that even the less complex and more economical Concorde never reached its financial break-even point makes it difficult to see how a hypersonic passenger transport vehicle could ever be a financial success.
Sanger returned to Germany in 1954 and three years later became director of the newly-created Institute for the Physics of Jet Propulsion in Stuttgart. However, when in 1961 the German government found out that Sanger was secretly making trips to Egypt, presumably to assist a group of rogue German engineers to develop missiles that could be used to attack Israel, they forced him to resign. The loss of his position, and scant prospect that his Silbervogel would be built during his lifetime, sent him into a state of depression and his health rapidly deteriorated. Sanger was unofficially rehabilitated when it was realized he had only acted as a consultant for an Egyptian meteorological sounding rocket project and had lectured at the university of Cairo. He then continued his work by assisting with a new spaceplane project at the revived Junkers company. Based on decades of research, he proposed a 200,000 kg (450,000 pound) reusable, two-stage vehicle consisting of a delta-wing carrier rocket plane and a smaller delta-wing orbital spaceplane. A steam-rocket sled was to provide a starting velocity of about 900 km per hour (560 miles per hour) at the end of a track 3 km (2 mile) long. The steam rocket would be relatively simple, using only heated water, but not very efficient in terms of performance. However, as with the original Silbervogel’s sled, that would not be particularly important for the overall spaceplane system’s performance. Its simplicity would save development effort and cost, whilst making it reusable would be relatively straightforward due to the easy – to-handle and cheap propellant (water) and the absence of extremely hot exhaust gases to eat away at the nozzle.
The orbital vehicle, called ‘HORUS’ (Hypersonic ORbital Upper Stage), would separate from the carrier at an altitude of 60 km (200,000 feet), then proceed into a 300 km (980,000 feet) orbit while the carrier plane returned to Earth. Having fulfilled its mission, HORUS would de-orbit and glide back to Earth very much like the Space Shuttle Orbiter. Both planes would be powered by similar rocket engines, three on the carrier and one on the orbital plane, each engine delivering 2,000,000
Newton of thrust at sea level and burning the powerful combination of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. This is another similarity with the later Space Shuttle, whose three main engines used those propellants and each had a sea-level thrust of
1,800,0 Newton. In fact, the entire concept has similarities to some of the Space Shuttle designs of the early 1970s. Designated the Junkers RT-8, this reusable launcher was to be able to place a 3,000 kg (7,000 pound) payload into low orbit. An improved version would later use a single-stage spaceplane with an integrated rocket-ramjet engine.
In October 1963 Sanger also accepted a professorship at the Technical University of Berlin where in February 1964, aged 58, he died while giving a lecture. Shortly before his death he wrote that he believed the US and the USSR would direct their full technological capacity towards an ‘Aerospace Transporter’ similar to the RT-8 as soon as the ‘Moon Race’ ended and that “there is therefore at the moment a unique but only a short-lived opportunity for Europe, with its great intellectual and material resources, to become active in a sector of spaceflight in which the major space powers have not yet achieved an insuperable lead”. His last spaceplane design, which after his death evolved into the ‘Sanger-Г RT-8-02, would take off vertically without the need for a launch sled and rail, but it never left the drawing board. Junkers was unable to secure enough support from the government since the ambitious, expensive and economically risky project was deemed to be a step too far.
Like Max Valier, but unlike most other rocket and spaceflight enthusiasts of the time, Sanger was a real rocket plane pioneer: he fully intended his rocket engines to propel rocket aircraft rather than ballistic rockets such as the A4/V2. Sanger was certainly a genius but, Uke Wernher von Braun, his willingness to work for the Nazi military in order to move his dream machines closer to reahty, even if it meant they would be used to bomb innocent civilians, has made him a rather controversial figure (his 1944 report contains a map of New York displaying the expected efficiency of a bombing campaign by a fleet of Silbervogel planes). Irene Bredt worked for the institute in Stuttgart until 1962 and survived her husband by 19 years. In 1970 she was honored with the Hermann Oberth Gold Medal for her scientific contributions.
Sanger and Bredt’s ideas have certainly influenced rocket plane design since the end of the war: the idea for the Space Shuttle can be traced back (via Dyna-Soar and the Bell ‘Antipodal Bomber’) to their revolutionary design. In his 1963 book, which was published in 1965 in English as Space Flight; Countdown for the Future, Sanger cites all of the reasons why, in his opinion, “aerospace planes” hold the future of spaceflight instead of expendable missiles: lower costs per flight, the ability to flight- test each type of production vehicle, the possible use of airfields in densely populated countries, easy self-transportation of the vehicle from the production plant to launch site, and the ability to use them for both orbital missions and long-distance flights. These are still the principal reasons for pursuing spaceplanes although nowadays the need for (and the advantages of) such vehicles seem less obvious. Certainly nothing resembling the Silbervogel has yet been built. In the same book he writes, “military aerospace planes will be used as reconnaissance planes, fighter planes against Earth satellites and extraterrestrial space stations, satellite inspections planes etc” and also “we can possibly count space fighter planes among the most important of all space
weapons”. At that time work on the X-20 Dyna-Soar was still ongoing, but after its cancellation work on such military orbital vehicles all but ceased (with the exception of the Space Shuttle, which was partially based on military requirements). However, considering the current renewed interest by the US Air Force in hypersonic vehicles Uke the X-51 and the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle, as well as automated orbital shuttles like the X-37, Sanger may well have been right on this after all.