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Hypersonic Strategic Weapons System

Edited by Robert Godwin
Apogee Books, 2003

Review by Roger Guillemette

A futuristic space plane is the latest topic in the wonderful series from Apogee Books, described as an "aerospace glider combining characteristics of missile, airplane and satellite. It will have multi-orbit capability... a true aero-spacecraft - a vehicle that can operate both within and beyond the sensible atmosphere."

The technical issues illustrated are daunting: windows that can withstand the intense forces of liftoff and searing temperatures of re-entry, heat-resistant leading edges and nose-caps fabricated from exotic materials, landing gear doors that remained sealed, and auxiliary power units that can efficiently supply the electrical demands of the vehicle.

This may sound like a litany of the challenges facing NASA today in the aftermath of the Columbia accident and advancing the concept for the Orbital Space Plane. But, more amazingly, these same obstacles were the focus of an intense, expensive Air Force project that began more than 45 years ago, in December 1957, just two months after the shock of Sputnik.

The technologies developed are both tantalizing and sobering. In the early 1960s, the United States was very close to developing an effective winged manned spacecraft that could be launched into orbit on short notice, quickly maneuvered over almost any point on the planet, re-enter the atmosphere and glide to a pinpoint landing on an ordinary runway.

The futuristic space plane was dubbed Dyna-Soar - short for Dynamic Soarer - and the Air Force expected to launch it in November 1963. (The Air Force later attempted to replace the vehicle's popular descriptive name with an X-vehicle designation - the X-20 - but eventually settled on a pairing of the two).

Propelled by a massive infusion of funding - $430 million in 1963 dollars, an amount equivalent to about $2.5 billion today - the vehicle that emerged was just slightly ahead of its time, a tantalizing might-have-been, but the lessons learned during the X-20 Dyna-Soar's development are still being studied (and applied) today.

In Dyna-Soar: Hypersonic Strategic Weapons System, editor Robert Godwin has created an unparalleled look at this oft-forgotten program through the Apogee Books formula of re-printing obscure yet important official documents and rare photographs - many published for the first time.

Included in this compilation is the original 1956 concept paper for "The Rocket-Propelled Commercial Airliner" written by Dr. Walter Dornberger, former commander in charge of rocket research at the Nazi Peenemünde facility and later naturalized into the United States along with Wernher von Braun and other German rocket scientists.

Dornberger's concept for a "space airliner" was embraced by the U.S. Air Force but its original mission was far more sinister - the ability to precisely deliver a nuclear warhead to a target halfway around the globe with only a three minute warning of its impending arrival. Scores of declassified memoranda describe the requirements for a secret "Hypersonic Glide Rocket Weapon System" to meet Air Force missions of the 1967 to 1980 timeframe.

A trail of fact sheets, status reports, official Air Force histories and a wide assortment of once-classified diagrams and photographs chart the ever-changing design and mission of the X-20 Dyna-Soar - after the development of accurate intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) rendered the original nuclear bombing missile obsolete. Godwin accurately assesses the confusion, stating that "Never before or since was such an expensive program subjected to so many changes in direction... Even the launch vehicle was never truly nailed down."

First envisioned for launch atop a Minuteman solid-fueled ICBM, the Dyna-Soar's rapid weight gain necessitated a shift to the liquid-fueled Titan I, then again to the upgraded Titan II (later used so successfully in NASA's Gemini program). When even this capable missile proved inadequate to lift the weighty space plane, Wernher von Braun's new Saturn C-1 moon rocket was briefly considered as a potential launcher but quickly dismissed because of cost (and probably its ownership - the Saturn belonged to NASA, not the Air Force).

The Air Force finally settled on the powerful Titan IIIC launch vehicle equipped with a pair of strap-on solid rocket motors with a unique twist - the X-20 Dyna-Soar version of the booster would be outfitted with stabilizing fins to compensate for the space plane's awkward aerodynamics during the launch phase. A massive integrated launch facility, featuring Launch Complexes 40 and 41, was constructed at Cape Canaveral to support an implausible launch rate of 40 Titan IIIs per year - many earmarked for Dyna-Soar missions.

Sadly, it was never to be. After six years of pioneering work by Boeing engineers and researchers, the X-20 Dyna-Soar program was canceled in December 1963 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara - just two weeks after the assassination of President John Kennedy.

McNamara's justification in scrapping the X-20 Dyna-Soar was to replace the winged spacecraft with another ill-fated Air Force space program - the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) which would use a modified Gemini spacecraft to ferry two military astronauts into orbit.

In a press conference announcing the project's cancellation, McNamara explained, "The Dyna-Soar program, as it was originally conceived, was not intended to develop a capability for ferrying vehicles or personnel or equipment into orbit, nor was it intended that the Dyna-Soar would provide a capability for extended stay in orbit, nor was it intended that it would provide a capability for placing substantial payloads, useful payloads, in orbit, and hence, it had a limited objective... It was very expensive."

In retrospect, it remains unclear which of the objectives outlined by McNamara (other than extended stays in orbit) would have been accomplished by the MOL program - which itself was canceled in June 1969 - after an expenditure of several billion more dollars.

In Godwin's endeavor to tell the entire Dyna-Soar story, the complete transcript of McNamara's cancellation press conference is included, along with the mournful-sounding official Air Force history, "Termination of the X-20A Dyna-Soar."

As with most Apogee Books offerings, the highlight of Dyna-Soar: Hypersonic Strategic Weapons System is the DVD-video disk packaged with the book as a bonus. This fascinating DVD contains long-lost Air Force documentary films outlining the project and its progress, a September 1962 press conference to announce the project's test pilots and showcase the rollout of the X-20 Dyna-Soar mockup at a Las Vegas trade show (including a great 'time machine' look at the famous Las Vegas Convention Center surrounded by nothing but desert), and glimpses of future astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom and Wally Schirra conducting pressure suit and cockpit tests.

Little remains to show for the years of effort and millions of dollars invested in the X-20 Dyna-Soar program - even the only full-size mockup of the vehicle has been lost forever - but this book will provide the aerospace enthusiast with an appreciation of what was being created, and then tossed away.

Godwin succinctly captures the irony and the implications of what was almost within our grasp, stating "If it had been seen successfully to its logical conclusion, the United States would have had a space shuttle when the Russians were still trying to launch a three-man pressurized sphere... the International Space Station would not currently be endangered with redundancy due to the lack of an adequate escape system. The enormous amounts of money used to deploy the B-2 and the B-1 [bombers] might have been unnecessary. The problem in 1963 was that no one spent enough time explaining why the Air Force needed a manned space program."

Today, both NASA and the Air Force are grappling with the same hard questions as the policy makers of 1963. One would hope that the lessons contained in Dyna-Soar: Hypersonic Strategic Weapons System will, if nothing else, give them pause to contemplate the words of George Santayana - "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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Roger Guillemette is an Aerospace Journalist and Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society. He was the Producer of Florida Today's now- defunct Space Online Web site and now serves as a Correspondent for He resides in Tiverton, Rhode Island and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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