Studying the Magnetosphere, Pushing the Envelope

Ten years ago today — March 25, 2000 — the “Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration” spacecraft, also known as IMAGE, was launched from Vandenberg AFB, California, atop a Delta-II rocket.

(IMAGE launch. NASA image.)

IMAGE was designed to study the Earth’s magnetosphere for two years, but it exceeded all expectations and actually sent back observations for over five years.

IMAGE was the first satellite mission dedicated to imaging the Earth’s magnetosphere, the region of space controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field and containing extremely tenuous plasmas of both solar and terrestrial origin.

In other historical news, on March 25, 1960 — 50 years ago today — NASA test pilot Joseph A. Walker made his first X-15 flight at Edwards AFB, CA. Walker eventually

flew the research aircraft 24 times and achieved its fastest speed and highest altitude. He attained a speed of 4,104 mph (Mach 5.92) during a flight on June 27, 1962, and reached an altitude of 354,300 feet on August 22, 1963 (his last X-15 flight).

From a strictly personal point of view, I like these particular history items because I was stationed at both of those air bases during my career.

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X-Series Flight Testing Continues at Eddie's Airplane Patch

Forty years ago today — March 19, 1970 — USAF test pilot Major Jerauld R. Gentry made the first powered flight in the X-24A lifting body.

(X-24A with rocket engine ignited after being dropped from the B-52 carrier aircraft. NASA image.)

The same B-52 used in the X-15 program (and later in the Pegasus program*) carried the X-24A to about 40,000 ft (13,860 m) altitude, where it was dropped and its rocket engine took the rest of the way through its flight profile. It then glided to a landing on the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB.

Over the life of the program, the X-24A made 28 powered flights, reaching a maximum speed of 1,036 mph (1,667 km/hr) and a maximum altitude of 71,407 ft (21,765 m). According to the project description on this page, NASA later used the X-24A’s shape as the basic profile for the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle demonstrator.

*Full disclosure: When I was stationed at Edwards (1986-90), I was on the Flight Readiness Review committee for the first Pegasus launch from that same B-52.

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Of X-Planes and Moon Rocks

Fifty years ago today — September 17, 1959 — Scott Crossfield made the first powered flight in an X-15, dropped off the wing of NASA’s B-52 flying out of Edwards AFB, CA.

(Cutaway drawing of the X-15. NASA Photo E62-7893.)

Here’s a NASA story commemorating the first flight, and a nice feature on Crossfield and his career.

And forty years ago today, the Smithsonian Institution unveiled the first lunar rock ever put on public display: brought back by Apollo-11, of course. Today I wonder if we have the national will to go back to the moon, or to go anywhere; the recent Augustine Panel noted that it’s technically feasible, but by damn it better be technically feasible by the 2020s if we did it back in the 1960s. It’s all a matter of money, and whether we see it as a cost or as an investment.

For the moment we have to content ourselves with the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission, due to smash into crater Cabeus-A in about three weeks to try to verify if the hydrogen concentrations detected on the moon are in the form of water ice.

I hope LCROSS finds water, and more than expected . . . but even if it doesn’t, that’s only one spot in one crater. It will take other investigations to prove whether the moon is completely devoid of water. (Why I care: The characters in my novel collect ice that’s been dredged up microgram by microgram out of the bottom of Faustini crater, and since Faustini was on the “short list” of possible LCROSS impact points [according to a graphic shown during the 11 September press conference] I think my fictional world is still plausible for now.)

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First X-15 Glide Flight, a Half Century Ago

Fifty years ago today — June 8, 1959 — Scott Crossfield flew the X-15 on its first glide flight above NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

(NASA Photo E-4942, from the X-15 Photo Collection.)

From Crossfield’s bio:

Crossfield left the [National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics] in 1955 to work for North American Aviation on the X-15 rocket-powered research airplane project. There, he served as both pilot and design consultant for the revolutionary new aircraft that was carried aloft and launched from beneath the wing of a B-52 for high-speed, high-altitude research missions.

As a result of his extensive rocket plane experience, he was responsible for many of the operational and safety features incorporated into the X-15 and was intimately involved in the design of the vehicle. Crossfield piloted its first free flight in 1959 and subsequently qualified the first two X-15s for flight before North American turned them over to NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Altogether, he completed 16 captive carry (mated to the B-52 launch aircraft), one glide and 13 powered flights in the X-15, reaching a maximum speed of Mach 2.97 (1,960 miles per hour) and a maximum altitude of 88,116 feet.

I feel an affinity for the X-15 and similar programs because of my work at Edwards. Even though I worked across the lakebed at the Rocket Lab, I got to interact with some of the Dryden folks, and have a photo of NASA’s B-52 mothership (carrying a Pegasus rocket) on the wall in my office.

Read more about the X-15 program at this NASA history site.

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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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