50 Years Ago in Space History

Fifty years ago today — March 10, 1959 — NASA flew the X-15 research plane on its first “captive” flight attached to their B-52 test aircraft.

(NASA Image E-4935. Click to enlarge. For more images, see NASA’s X-15 photo collection.)

The X-15 program eventually carried pilots to the edge of space from Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

And in the category of personal nostalgia, I have a picture of that same B-52 aircraft on my office wall, courtesy of my boss at the Rocket Lab at Edwards. In my picture, it doesn’t have an X-15 attached to the pylon: it’s carrying the Pegasus space launch vehicle, for which I served on the Flight Readiness Review panel. (Which was still pretty cool for a starry-eyed young lieutenant.)

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This Space History Series Makes Me Feel Old

Especially items like this one: 30 years ago today — March 5, 1979 — Voyager-1 passed Jupiter at a distance of 278,000 kilometers (c. 173,000 miles … closer than the moon is to the earth) and sent back photos and data about the gas giant.

On another note, it’s unfortunate that Voyager had to star in the awful first STAR TREK movie.

In other space history, 35 years ago today the X-24B research vehicle made its first supersonic flight with NASA pilot John A. Manke at the controls. This took place, of course, at Edwards AFB, where I would be stationed just a few years later at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (seen in the background of the attached photo of an X-24B landing; more available here).

(NASA Photo ECN-4351. Click to enlarge.)

Yes, just a precious few years later I was climbing around those test stands on Leuhman Ridge. Those were good days, but these days are good, too.

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Space Technology Exports and Installations

Two space-related items today: an article in New Scientist covers the illegal export of space technology to China, and the Space Shuttle crew plans to install a new toxic gas detector on the ISS.

First, from New Scientist: China denies attempting to get US space data. The story relates how Shu Quan-Sheng, a physicist born in China but now a naturalized US citizen, pled guilty to illegally exporting space technology to China: specifically, data on space launch vehicle technology.

This piqued my interest because I was a space technology security monitor for almost 3 years in the Defense Technology Security Administration. The NS article was heavy on Chinese denials, but light on their previous shenanigans (although it did link to an article with a list of a few previous items). Yet all they had to do was Google “Cox Commission Report” and downlink the file to learn about previous activities in which China obtained launch vehicle technology from U.S. corporations.

(I cross-posted this item in the Space Warfare Forum.)

Second, a link I got from Twitter: Astronauts to Install ENose Hazardous Gas Detector. The “ENose” detector is the latest version of a detector to warn station residents of dangerous levels of toxic gases.

I was interested in this item for two reasons. First, I used a variety of vapor detectors in my assignment as a Bioenvironmental Engineer at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB, and I hope — but have some doubts that — the device will perform as advertised. I don’t doubt at all that it will work: it’s a polymer film detector based on electrical conductivity, more sophisticated than the old paper-tape, photosensitive detectors and certainly easier to use than some of the more complex, chemically-intensive instruments we had. I’m more concerned with its useful life, what happens if the detector medium gets saturated, that sort of thing.

But enough geeky reminiscing.

The second reason that story interested me is that two of the main characters in my novel (my work-in-progress) are environmental engineers who are trying to keep the new lunar colony alive — and detecting hazardous vapors is a big part of that job. I’m trying to get just enough realism in the novel to make it believable, without going to the geeky extreme. Hopefully, I’ll do a better job in the novel than I did in this blog post. :rolleyes:

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Space History Today: X-15 Last Flight

Wow, three posts in less than two weeks that mention NASA test pilot Bill Dana — I didn’t see that coming. (The others were yesterday and October 15th.)

As you probably guessed, Mr. Dana piloted the last X-15 flight — number 199 — forty years ago today. He was dropped from the wing of the same B-52 that, years later, would drop the Pegasus launch vehicle during its first flights. When we were on the Pegasus Flight Readiness Review Panel in the late 1980s, I never thought I’d be blogging about him later … but then again, none of us knew what a blog was because they hadn’t been invented yet.

But here’s to you, Mr. Dana, and all those like you who have “danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” May we follow, ever upward.

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Today's Space Anniversary: First HL-10 Powered Flight

The “heavy” lifting body test program actually began in 1966, but the first powered flight of the HL-10 happened on October 23, 1968. The program was flown out of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base, and is briefly showcased here. Here’s a contact sheet of medium-resolution photos from the program.

I found it interesting that one of the HL-10 test pilots was Bill Dana, whom I mentioned on this blog a few days ago.

I also found the Wikipedia page on the program to be interesting, too, particularly the “What Might Have Been” section. Project engineer R. Dale Reed proposed

to heavily modify the HL-10 at the Flight Research Center with the addition of an ablative heat shield, reaction controls, and other additional subsystems needed for manned spaceflight. The now space-rated vehicle would have then flown on the Apollo-Saturn V launch vehicle in the same space which originally held the Lunar Module. Once in earth orbit, it was planned that a robotic extraction arm would remove the vehicle from the rocket’s third stage and place it adjacent to the manned Apollo CSM spacecraft. One of the astronauts, who would be trained to fly the vehicle, would then spacewalk from the Apollo and board the lifting body to perform a pre-reentry check on its systems.

It was planned that there would be two flights in this program. In the first, the lifting body pilot would return to the Apollo and send the HL-10 back to earth unmanned. If this flight was successful, on the next launch, he would then pilot the HL-10 back to earth for a planned landing at Edwards AFB.

That would’ve been cool.

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Blog Action, Space History, Whatnot

I’m typing this while I try to watch the debate, which I now know from new research is really impossible (as I wrote about in this blog post) … but anyway:

This year’s Blog Action Day topic is “Poverty.” All the blog-savvy readers undoubtedly already know that Blog Action Day “is an annual nonprofit event that aims to unite the world’s bloggers, podcasters and videocasters, to post about the same issue on the same day. Our aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion.”

Hmmm, what do I post about poverty? As a science fiction writer and editor, I like this quote from Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” (in Time Enough For Love):

Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as ‘bad luck.’

Something to think about in this political season.

Moving on, we have two space history anniversaries today.

First, 50 years ago today the X-15 rolled out from the North American plant in Los Angeles, CA. When we were stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, I was on the Pegasus Flight Readiness Review Committee with Bill Dana, one of the X-15 test pilots. That was pretty cool.

And five years ago today, the Chinese launched their first manned mission with taikonaut Yang Liwei aboard Shenzhou-5 (“Divine Vessel 5”).

Finally, the “whatnot” … it looks as if this post is long enough already, so I’ll leave off the whatnot.

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Space History, and We Were There

Twenty years ago today, the Space Shuttle Discovery landed on Runway 17 at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after the “return to flight” mission following the loss of Challenger. It just so happens that we were stationed at Edwards at the time, and got to see it.

Later, I was on the Air Force Flight Test Center shuttle recovery team, and worked four shuttle landings as part of the crew that would help extract astronauts in an emergency. For this landing, though, I was just a spectator — which was, in itself, pretty cool.

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