The history of space launch is replete with rockets that never left the drawing board. One of the most famous of these unbuilt rockets is the Sea Dragon, a true giant which dwarfed even the mighty Saturn rockets of its day.

Robert Truax / Aerojet General Sea Dragon rocket concept with aircraft carrier for scale

The Sea Dragon was the brain child of the US Navy’s rocket pioneer Captain Robert Truax (by then retired), who played a key role in projects such as the Polaris missile, Viking sounding rocket, and Thor IRBM. Working at Aerojet General in the early 1960’s, Truax led a design study of the concept under a NASA contract. A final report was presented in January 1963.

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Written by Astro1 on January 20th, 2013 , Space History

Space Shuttle Challenger liftoff

Pixar’s restaurant critic Anton Ego noted that in many ways, the work of a critic is easy. “We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

The Space Shuttle has been the target of negative criticism for a long while. Some of that criticism is fair and valid. There’s no doubt that the Shuttle failed to live up to many of its original goals. Some of it is not fair or valid: the claim that the Shuttle was more dangerous than capsules like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, for example.

Rational people might have expected the criticism to abate after 2004, when President George W. Bush declared the Shuttle program to be a dead horse. That did not happen. Instead, Shuttle bashing became more vehement as the end of the program drew near. It continues still to this day.

Much of the criticism is politically motivated. Many critics contend that the Shuttle’s record proves the folly of trying to build a reusable launch vehicle in the future. In their view, expendable rockets and capsules are the only way man was meant to go into space. That criticism is unfair for two reasons. First, the Shuttle was not a fully reusable launch vehicle. It was a hybrid of reusable and expendable components, and most of its failures can be linked directly to the expendable parts of the system. Second, the Shuttle accomplished far more in its lifetime than the critics would have us believe.

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Written by Astro1 on January 18th, 2013 , Space History

50 years of progress in NASA computing systems:

50 years of progress in NASA computer systems

50 Years of progress in NACA/NASA aviation research:

50 years of progress in aviation

50 years of progress in NASA spaceflight:

50 years of NASA spaceflight

It’s sad that there has been so little progress in human spaceflight compared to other fields.

This tragedy will continue as long as Congress forces NASA to continue working on Orion and SLS, instead of building something new like Johnson Space Center’s Nautilus X.

Written by Astro1 on January 6th, 2013 , Space History

In one of his last public appearances, Neil Armstrong spoke about the X-15 rocketplane at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Palo Alto last February. It was appropriate that Armstrong, one of the pilots who flew America’s first suborbital spacecraft, got to meet the developers who are building America’s next generation of suborbital spacecraft. RIP, Neil.


Written by Astro1 on December 28th, 2012 , Space History

Today is the 50th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University, in which he called our the reasons for landing a man on he Moon. Kennedy’s speech remains one of the most famous and rousing bits of oratory in US history. Unfortunately, it was also one of the most misguided, and his words have helped to malform space policy for half a century.

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Written by Astro1 on September 12th, 2012 , Space History, Space Policy and Management

Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the Moon, has passed way.

It’s sad to think that his most notable accomplishment turned out to be a dead end. Armstrong, who was 82, landed on the Moon during the first half of his life. Armstrong was just 38 when he walked on the Moon, and just 42 when the Moon landings ended. For almost half his life, he would never again see a human walk on the Moon.

Let’s hope that the next time humans visit the Moon, it will be done in a sustainable, affordable manner. Please note that won’t be done by government.

Prior to Apollo, Armstrong piloted the X-15 and was one of seven astronauts chosen to fly the US Air Force X-20 DynaSoar. If Apollo had been canceled while DynaSoar and the X-15 were sustained, perhaps we would have humans on the Moon today. Or perhaps not – sustainable economic development is still the key.

Apollo astronaut on the Moon with Lunar Module and flag

Written by Astro1 on August 25th, 2012 , Space History

Suborbital spacecraft may play an important role in training astronauts for orbital and deep-space missions.

Today, US astronauts (and their foreign counterparts) receive no training on rocket-powered vehicles prior to their first orbital flight. Whether they are pilots or payload operators, they are “thrown into the deep end of the pool” on their first space mission. Space agencies attempt to compensate, through extensive ground-based training and simulation, but the step up from ground-based training to actual flight is still enormous. Then, completing their mission, astronauts face a gap of many months or years before their next flight. Military and airline pilots have to meet regular “currency requirements,” but astronauts have no way to stay current in rocket-powered vehicles.

NASA has recognized the potential value of suborbital spacecraft for astronaut training. In 2008, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said, “We could use commercial suborbital human transportation for early training and qualification of astronauts. If I could buy a seat to suborbital flight for a few hundred thousand dollars, why wouldn’t we have all of our new astros make their first flight in such a manner?” NASA never followed through on proposed studies of such training, however, perhaps because of budget overruns in other areas.

Commercial space companies are interested, however. XCOR Aerospace and Excalibur Almaz recently signed a memorandum of understanding that would open the door for XCOR to provide training for Excalibur Almaz astronauts using the Lynx spacecraft. If the idea catches on, suborbital spaceflight may become a standard part of the training toolkit for all future astronauts.

Such training could provide additional impetus for the development of a commercial spaceports near national space centers. It could be a particular boon to Texas. There has already been talk of establishing a suborbital spaceport at Ellington Airport, adjacent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Commercial suborbital spacecraft would be a useful supplement to the fleet of T-38 Talon jet trainers which NASA already has based at Ellington.

Excalibur Almaz Space Expeditions

Excalibur Almaz is marketing a commercial space capsule called the RRV, or Reusable Reentry Vehicle, based on the TKS capsule developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The TKS capsule was intended for use with the Almaz (military Salyut) space station. It was tested in an unmanned configuration, but the Almaz program was cancelled before manned flights of the capsule were conducted.

Excalibur Almaz RRV (Reusable Reentry Vehicle) space capsule

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Written by Astro1 on June 27th, 2012 , Excalibur Almaz, Innovation, Space History, XCOR Aerospace

In the early 1980’s, NASA pursued parallel space-station studies. Marshall Space Flight Center favored a series of space platforms, initially unmanned but human-tended by regular Shuttle missions, that would evolve toward a permanently manned platform. (The Carter Administration had banned all discussion of space stations, so euphemisms were necessary.) Unmanned platforms would be located in both polar and low-inclination orbits. (This was prior to the Challenger accident, and NASA still expected to operate a West Coast launch site for Shuttle launches to polar orbit.) The manned platform would be located in the low-inclination orbit. The platforms would be devoted to space science, primarily microgravity and astronomy for the low-inclination platforms, Earth observation in polar orbit.

Johnson Space Center, on the other hand, had minimal interest in science. It favored a concept called the Space Operations Center, which would be dedicated to the support of in-space operations.


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Written by Astro1 on June 23rd, 2012 , Space History

Eight years ago today, Mike Melvill flew SpaceShip One to an altitude of 100.124 kilometers, becoming the first pilot to qualify for the FAA’s commercial astronaut wings.

In centuries to come, June 21, 2004 will be remembered as the start of the real Space Age – the era when humans finally began to open up space in large numbers.

Today, however, it will pass largely unnoticed. The so-called “New Space” groups have their big parties to celebrate the launch of Yuri Gagarin and every Apollo landing. (There’s not much new about in “New” Space.)

We won’t be celebrating today, either. It’s been eight years since the X-Prize, and commercial suborbital flights haven’t started yet. The future is behind schedule. So, today is a day to remember but not to celebrate. That will come when the work is done.

Written by Astro1 on June 21st, 2012 , Scaled Composites, Space History

All organizations that have enduring for any length of time have embarrassing facts and episodes in their early history. Often times, myths arise to explain these embarrassments.

NASA Mercury 7 astronauts

One of NASA’s embarrassments is the fact that women were excluded from its early space programs. Until the advent of the Space Shuttle, NASA’s human spaceflight program was officially known as the “manned” space program. The name change in the early 80’s was not purely symbolic or a sign of political correctness, as the myth makers often state. The “man” in “manned space program” did not refer to mankind, it might adult human males, specifically.

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Written by Astro1 on May 8th, 2012 , Space History

The history of Mercury, Apollo, and the early Space Age is so well known that most of us assume that was the way events were fated to happen. So, it’s interesting to go back and look at some of the alternatives that were presented at the time. In our library for example, we have a small book written by the late G. Harry Stine which shows a different path which history might have taken.

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Written by Astro1 on May 5th, 2012 , Space History

It is often said that history is written by the winners. Space history is no exception.

Everyone knows that Apollo 11 that landed the first man on the Moon. Very few people know about the important role Gemini played in that accomplishment. In a very real sense, it was Gemini, not Apollo, that landed Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

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Written by Astro1 on April 6th, 2012 , Space History Tags:

The Kistler K-1 was a two-stage reusable rocket under development by Kistler Aerospace from 1994 on. The K-1 was designed to place a 10,000-pound payload  in Low Earth Orbit. The K-1 was originally intended to launch constellations of Low Earth Orbit communication satellites. When the LEO communication satellite market collapsed, K-1 development lapsed into dormancy. It was briefly revived when the bankrupt Kistler Aerospace was purchased by the suborbital startup Rocketplane LLC, which became Rocketplane Kistler.

The merged company attempted to market the K-1 to NASA as an International Space Station resupply vehicle under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. This effort was unsuccessful. In 2007, NASA cancelled the K-1 COTS contract. Rocketplane Kistler declared bankruptcy a short while later.

Kistler K-1 reusable launch vehicle (RLV)

At the time the K-1 was in development, the design raised some eyebrows among observers due to its unusual recovery mode. The K-1 was to be launched from a desert location (either the Nevada nuclear weapons test site or the Woomera launch site in Australia). Both stages were designed to land in the desert using a system of very large parachutes (six on the first stage, three on the second stage) and airbags. The stages would then be recovered with “a crew of less than 10 people,″ returned to the launch site, cleaned, and prepared for the next with, supposedly, minimal refurbishment.

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Written by Astro1 on April 3rd, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Space History

NASA has released a a couple of e-books on the X-15 suborbital rocketplane.

X-15: Extending the Frontiers of Flight by Dennis R. Jenkins is a very complete (644-page) official history of the program. It was published in December, 2010. The paperback sells for $35 on Amazon but you can download it for free here.

X-15 Research Results (NASA SP-60) by Wendell H. Stillwell is an older technical report. It’s from 1965, so an original hardcopy is probably hard to find. You can download that one here.

X-15 Extending the Frontiers of Flight book cover

Written by Astro1 on March 28th, 2012 , Books and Resources, Space Exploration (General), Space History

As the Apollo program wound down in the late 60’s, NASA began to think about how it could reuse some of the technology and systems that had been developed for Apollo. This recycling effort was called the Apollo Applications Program. Apollo Applications led to Skylab, America’s first space station, but it was intended for the program to be more than just a one-shot. Skylab was to be followed by Skylab II , which would be more reusable and incorporate the first use of artificial gravity. NASA hoped the Skylabs would lead to  a 12-man space station and then a 50-man space base. There were also concepts for a lunar Skylab in polar orbit about the Moon. One by one, all of these concepts were dropped as NASA was forced to divert funding to its priority program – the development of the Space Shuttle.

One of the more interesting concepts from this period did not come from NASA but from a model company called MPC. It may seem  unusual for a realistic space-vehicle concept to come from a toy company, but it’s not too surprising given that the Pilgrim Observer was designed by the late G. Harry Stine. An aerospace engineer who learned his trade under Dr. Wernher von Braun launching V-2 rockets at White Sands, Harry Stine was one of the early advocates of commercial space and author of several books on space exploration and space development, including The Third Industrial Revolution. Although the Pilgrim Observer was not based directly on NASA concepts, Stine did incorporate much of the technology which he knew to be current at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 26th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General), Space History

Using high-performance aircraft or suborbital spacecraft as launch platforms for upper stages is an idea that’s gaining considerable attention these days. XCOR Aerospace, for example, believes that nanosatellite launches will be a big part of its Lynx business model.

The idea has considerable design history behind it. In the early 1960’s, NASA considered using the X-15 as a launch platform to place satellites up to 150 pounds in orbit:

NASA X-15 Blue Scout launch platform

The official NASA history X-15 Extending the Frontiers of Flight by Dennis R. Jenkins discusses the Blue Scout concept in some detail: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 21st, 2012 , Space History Tags:

Given the recent interest in using jet fighters as launch platforms, it’s interesting to look at some past proposals.

The late Len Cormier was an old-school aerospace engineer who became involved with space just prior to Sputnik. He was also a good friend who never tired of regaling us with tales of dating Marilyn Monroe. Len worked for North American Aviation, which later became part of Rockwell International, and was involved in some of the design studies that led to the Rockwell Space Shuttle. He became convinced that the Space Shuttle would never live up to the economic benefits which Rockwell and NASA claimed for it – it was too large, too expensive, and too complex, in his view – and left to form his own company (PanAero, Inc.) to pursue his own designs. Len continued working up until his death in 2008, always championing vehicles which were small, simple, and designed to minimize development costs.

Len’s primary interest was vehicles that could carry humans to orbit (such as the Space Van) but he also worked on suborbital rockets and satellite launchers. One of his later designs was a concept to launch a 100-kilogram (220-lb) satellite from an F-14A Tomcat. The US Navy fighter was an appropriate choice for Len, who flew fighters off a Navy carrier during World War II, but it was made for sound engineering reasons. Len believed the design of the F-14 was better suited for carrying underslung payloads than other aircraft such as the F-15 Eagle. In addition, F-14 airframes were readily available (at least to the US government). The Navy was in the process of retiring F-14s from active service and good-quality airframes were filling government boneyards. Unfortunately, Len ran into some difficulty persuading the government to sell recently retired military aircraft to a civilian company.

Premier Space Systems is currently considering a similar concept for their future orbital system. PSS would use an F-15A or B model rather than the F-14.

PanAero F-14 space launch platform

Written by Astro1 on March 20th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Space History Tags:

Project NOTSNIK is one of the obscure footnotes of space history.

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Written by Astro1 on March 17th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Space History Tags: