Category Archives: Space

That Time An X-15 Rocket Plane Entered Hypersonic Spin At Mach 5 And Broke Apart Killing USAF Test Pilot.

U.S. Air Force test pilot Maj. Michael J. Adams was killed during X-15 Flight 191 on Nov. 15, 1967.

The North American X-15 was a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft 50 ft long with a wingspan of 22 ft. operated by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft in the 1960s.

It was a missile-shaped vehicle with an unusual wedge-shaped vertical tail, thin stubby wings, and unique side fairings that extended along the side of the fuselage. It was powered by the XLR-99 rocket engine, manufactured by Thiokol Chemical Corp., pilot-controlled and  capable of developing 57,000 lb of thrust.

The aircraft was brought to the launch altitude of 45,000 feet by a NASA B-52 “mothership” then air dropped to that the rocket plane would have enough fuel to reach its high speed and altitude test points. Depending on the mission, the rocket engine provided thrust for the first 80 to 120 sec of flight. The remainder of the normal 10 to 11 min. flight was powerless and ended with a 200-mph glide landing.

The X-15 was air dropped by a NASA B-52 “mothership”

The X-15 was capable of climbing to the edge of space at an altitude in excess of 300,000 feet at speed of more than 4,500 miles per hour (+7,270 km/h). Actually, the target altitude for X-15 flights was set at 360,000 feet because there were concerns about the reentry from 400,000 feet, that was the maximum altitude the rocket plane was theoretically able to reach.

Two types of flight profiles were used during test flights depending on the purposes of the mission: a high-altitude flight plan that called for the pilot to maintain a steep rate of climb, or a speed profile that called for the pilot to push over and maintain a level altitude.

For flight in the dense air of the usable atmosphere, the X-15 used conventional aerodynamic controls but to maneuver in the thin air outside of the appreciable Earth’s atmosphere, where flight control surfaces were useless, the X-15 used a reaction control system (RCS) made of hydrogen peroxide thrust rockets. Those located on the nose of the aircraft provided pitch and yaw control; those on the wings provided roll control. A similar system was used on the Space Shuttle Orbiter, decades later: indeed, experience and data gathered from the X-15 program contributed to the development of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle manned spaceflight programs.

Cutaway drawing of the North American X-15.

Needless to say, handling the rocket-powered aircraft at the edge of space was particularly challenging.


X-15-3 (56-6672) made 65 flights during the program. It reached attaining a top speed of Mach 5.65 and a maximum altitude of 354,200 feet.

Official records say that only 10 of the 12 X-15 pilots flew Ship #3; eight of them earned their astronaut wings during the program (in fact, U.S. Air Force pilots who flew the X-15 to altitudes above 50 miles all received Astronaut Wings): Robert White, Joseph Walker, Robert Rushworth, John “Jack” McKay, Joseph Engle, William “Pete” Knight, William Dana, and Michael Adams all earned their astronaut wings in Ship #3.

Out of three X-15s built by North American for the program, Ship #3 is the only X-15 that has not survived, as it was lost on Nov. 15, 1967.

X-15-1, serial number 56-6670, is now located at the National Air and Space museum, Washington DC. North American X-15A-2, serial number 56-6671, is at the United States Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Here’s the story of that last mission:

On 15 November 1967, Ship #3 was launched over Delamar Lake, Nevada with Maj. Michael J. Adams at the controls. The vehicle soon reached a speed of Mach 5.2, and a peak altitude of 266,000 feet.

During the climb, an electrical disturbance degraded the aircraft’s controllability. Ship #3 began a slow drift in heading, which soon became a spin. Adams radioed that the X-15 “seems squirrelly” and then said “I’m in a spin.”

Through some combination of pilot technique and basic aerodynamic stability, Adams recovered from the spin and entered an inverted Mach 4.7 dive. As the X-15 plummeted into the increasingly thicker atmosphere, the Honeywell adaptive flight control system caused the vehicle to begin oscillating. As the pitching motion increased, aerodynamic forces finally broke the aircraft into several major pieces.

Adams was killed when the forward fuselage impacted the desert. This was the only fatal accident during the entire X-15 program.  The canopy from Ship #3, recovered during the original search in 1967, is displayed at the San Diego Aerospace Museum, San Diego, California.

Parts of the crashed X-15-3, serial number 56-6672, recovered in 1992 by Peter Merlin and Tony Moore (The X-Hunters) are on display at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards.

According to NASA, the X-15s made a total of 199 flights over a period of nearly 10 years (from June 1959 to Oct. 1968) and set world’s unofficial speed and altitude records of 4,520 miles per hour or Mach 6.7 (set by Ship #2) and 354,200 feet (set by Ship #3).

Image credit: NASA

Well Before The SR-72 Was Conceived, The Iconic SR-71 Blackbird Proved “Speed Is The Real Stealth”

The SR-71 Blackbird was so fast it outran every missile shoot against it and every interceptor scrambled to intercept it.

The aviation “side” of the Web went abuzz following the rumor that an SR-72 prototype was spotted performing flight tests at the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, California.

Back in 2013, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, the legendary division that designed airplanes which represented a giant leap for their times such as the F-104, the U-2, the Blackbird family or the F-117A stealth fighter jet, reveled the existence of a project for a Hypersonic strike aircraft dubbed SR-72.

This graphic is the U.S. Air Force’s first graphic of the SR-72. All the previous concept images were relased by Lockheed Martin.

The SR-72 is an unmanned hypersonic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike platform designed for Mach 6.

Based on the concept images released by the U.S. Air Force (the first official one can be found above) is coherent with the most recent hypersonic designs and it is quite similar to at least one of the configurations studied since the early ’60s for an SR-71 Blackbird replacement.

Anyway, regardless to whether an SR-72 prototype has already started flight testing somewhere between California and Nevada, the hypersonic strike aircraft will be able to fly about twice as fast as its predecessor, the iconic Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird, one of the fastest planes ever flown operationally.

The first concept artwork of the SR-72 released by Lockheed Martin in 2013.

The Blackbird was the first aircraft to feature stealth capabilities: a special paint that contained iron ferrites and absorbed radar energy instead of returning it to the sender was used for SR-71’s wings, tail and fuselage. The reduced RCS (Radar Cross Section) made any reaction to an SR-71 overflight almost useless: the aircraft was so fast that once the radar detected it, the SAM battery’s guidance system was not able to compute the right parameters for a successful kill. Moreover, the range and bearing of the SR-71 was also denied to the enemy by jamming the radars with the use of the sophisticated electronic countermeasures (ECM) that equipped by the Blackbird.

However, in spite of its radar-evading features, what made the SR-71 almost impossible to intercept, were its incredible flight characteristics: it was able to fly at more than 3.5 Mach at 88,000 feet. The aircraft could climb higher than that and according to some sources the Blackbird could reach 120,000 feet and above. At that altitude, Soviet SAMs would have been unable to maneuver to hit an SR-71: the air is so thin that any maneuvering capability of a missile is practically nonexistent, as explained by the former Blackbird pilot Col. Richard H. Graham in his book “SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of THE BLACKBIRD The World’s Highest , Fastest Plane.

In 2012 a DARPA statement stated that America was gradually losing the “strategic advantage” that its stealth warplanes had long provided, as other countries’ stealth and counter-stealth capabilities continued to improve. For this reason, “speed is the new stealth” is a slogan that accompanied the unveiling of the SR-72 in 2013. However, the SR-71’s story is a proof that speed has always been the key to stealth.

Indeed, throughout its career, that came to an end on Oct. 9, 1999, no SR-71 was reportedly lost nor damaged due to hostile actions.

Not only did SAMs fail to catch the Blackbird but even the fastest Soviet fighter jets, including the MiG-31 Foxhound, lacked the necessary speed to reach the SR-71.

A Blackbird at night on the ramp at Beale Air Force Base, California.

Here below you can find an excerpt from “MiG Pilot,” a book for Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko, who defected to Japan in a MiG-25 on Dec. 6, 1976, that we have already posted in the past. Here’s what Belenko recounts :

American reconnaissance planes, SR-71s, were prowling off the coast, staying outside Soviet airspace by photographing terrain hundreds of miles inland with side – angle cameras. They taunted and toyed with the MiG-25s sent up to intercept them, scooting up to altitudes the Soviet planes could not reach, and circling leisurely above them or dashing off at speeds the Russians could not match.”

“[The Soviets] had a master plan to intercept an SR-71 by positioning a MiG-25 in front of it and one below it, and when the SR-71 passed they would fire missiles. But it never occurred. Soviet computers were very primitive, and there is no way that mission can be accomplished.”

“First of all, the SR-71 flies too high and too fast. The MiG-25 cannot reach it or catch it. Secondly…the missiles are useless above 27,000 meters [88,000 feet], and as you know, the SR-71 cruises much higher. But even if we could reach it, our missiles lack the velocity to overtake the SR-71 if they are fired in a tail chase. And if they are fired head-on, the guidance systems cannot adjust quickly enough to the high closing speed”.

As the above footage shows, NASA flew the Blackbird as well.

Four SR-71 airplanes operated from NASA Dryden during the 1990s. According to the Agency, two were used for research and two to support Air Force reactivation of the SR-71 for reconnaissance missions. Although the Air Force retired the Blackbirds in 1990, Congress reinstated funding for additional flights several years later. SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844) arrived at Dryden on Feb. 15, 1990. It was placed into storage until 1992 and served as a research platform until its final flight on Oct. 9, 1999. SR-71A (61-7971/NASA 832) arrived at Dryden on March 19, 1990, but was returned to Air Force inventory as the first aircraft was reactivated in 1995. Along with SR-71A (61-7967), it was flown by NASA crews in support of the Air Force program. SR-71B (61-7956/NASA 831) arrived at Dryden on July 25, 1991, and served as a research platform as well as for crew training and proficiency until October 1997.

SpaceX Successfully Launches The U.S. Air Force’s Secretive X-37B Unmanned Spacecraft Just Before Hurricane Irma Reaches Florida

SpaceX launched the Pentagon’s mysterious X-37B orbital space drone just before the Hurricane Irma hit Florida.

While people prepared for Hurricane Irma, the 45th Space Wing successfully launched a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 10 a.m. on Sept. 7.

The Falcon 9, a two-stage rocket designed by SpaceX for reliable and cost-efficient transport of satellites and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, carried into orbit a U.S. Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), marking the fifth space flight for the unmanned orbital vehicle program and its first onboard a Falcon 9.

The X-37B program completed its fourth classified mission on May 7, 2017, landing after 718 days in orbit and extending the total number of days spent in orbit to 2,085.

Approximately eight minutes after the launch, SpaceX successfully landed the Falcon 9 first-stage booster back at Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

“I’m incredibly proud of the 45th Space Wing’s contributions to the X-37B program,” Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander, said in a public release. “This marks the fifth successful launch of the OTV and its first onboard a Falcon 9. A strong relationship with our mission partners, such as the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, is vital toward maintaining the Eastern Range as the World’s Premiere Gateway to Space.”

Whilst the “OTV is designed to demonstrate reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operate experiments, which can be returned to and examined on Earth,” the details of its mission remain classified.

Since its first flight in 2010, several theories about the role of the X-37B have emerged: according to someone, the orbital drone is a space-based weapons platform carrying a weaponized re-entry vehicle that could be released over or near a specific target; others believe the OTV is a space ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) platform able to carry a wide variety of sensor packages in its internal cargo bay; some analysts believe that the X-37B is *simply* a research platform used to perform tests in space environment.

OTV-5 was launched by Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, a historic pad that has been used to support U.S. space programs since the early 1960s: originally built to support the Apollo program, LC-39A supported the first Saturn V launch (Apollo 4), and many subsequent Apollo missions, including Apollo 11 in July 1969. Beginning in the late 1970s, LC-39A was modified to support space shuttle launches, hosting the first and last shuttle missions to orbit in 1981 and 2011, respectively.
In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA for the use of Launch Complex 39A. Extensive modifications to LC-39A have been made to support launches of both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

LC-39 along with the rest of KSC facility’s buildings built after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are supposed to withstand winds between 130 and 135 miles per hour.


Two NASA’s WB-57F Jets Are About To Chase The Total Solar Eclipse. Here is How And Where.

NASA is about to launch two retrofitted WB-57F aircraft to follow the shadow of the moon. The last of a long series of interesting missions…

NASA still operates three WB-57Fs, configured for air sampling and the other for photography, radar and thermal recce. The first two, NASA926 and 928 have been flying research missions since the early ’60s, whereas NASA927 is a more recent addition to the fleet, having joined NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, in 2013.

Based at Ellington Field, Texas, they are often deployed to different bases, both at home and abroad; to undertake missions in support of scientific projects (focusing on hurricanes, radiation impact on clouds, atmospheric data gathering, tropical storm generation analysis, and so on).

For instance, on Aug. 21, 2017, the total solar eclipse that for most of the observers will last less than two and half minutes, for one team of NASA-funded scientists, will last over seven minutes. Indeed, the eclipse will be chased by two retrofitted WB-57F jet planes: NASA926 and NASA927.

According to NASA, Amir Caspi of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and his team will use two of NASA’s WB-57F research jets to observe the eclipse from twin telescopes mounted on the noses of the planes in order to capture the clearest images of the Sun’s outer atmosphere — the corona — to date and the first-ever thermal images of Mercury, revealing how temperature varies across the planet’s surface.

The two aircraft have filled a FPL to follow the route below:

The FPL of NASA 927 (the same filed by NASA 926): a 4h 30m trip across the U.S. (credit:

This is the route that will be followed by NASA 926 and NASA 927 to chase the total solar eclipse. (credit: FlightAware).

“Due to technological limitations, no one has yet directly seen nanoflares, but the high-resolution and high-speed images to be taken from the WB-57F jets might reveal their effects on the corona. The high-definition pictures, captured 30 times per second, will be analyzed for wave motion in the corona to see if waves move towards or away from the surface of the Sun, and with what strengths and sizes,” says an official NASA release.

“The two planes, launching from Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will observe the total eclipse for about three and a half minutes each as they fly over Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee. By flying high in the stratosphere, observations taken with onboard telescopes will avoid looking through the majority of Earth’s atmosphere, greatly improving image quality. At the planes’ cruising altitude of 50,000 feet, the sky is 20-30 times darker than as seen from the ground, and there is much less atmospheric turbulence, allowing fine structures and motions in the Sun’s corona to be visible.

Images of the Sun will primarily be captured at visible light wavelengths, specifically the green light given off by highly ionized iron, superheated by the corona. This light is best for showing the fine structures in the Sun’s outer atmosphere. These images are complementary to space-based telescopes, like NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which takes images primarily in ultraviolet light and does not have the capacity for the high-speed imagery that can be captured aboard the WB-57F.”

Scientific research aside, NASA’s Canberras are also involved in some “special operations” every now and then.

For instance, in 2007 there were speculations and theories about the type of mission flown by the WB-57 in war zones fueled by pictures of the aircraft operating from Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan without the standard NASA logo and markings. Officially, the aircraft performed geophysical and remote sensing surveys as part of the U.S. aid to the Afghan reconstruction effort. The WB-57 collected  AVIRIS (Airborne Visible Infra Red Imaging Spectrometer) data that could be analyzed to provide information on mineral assemblages that could aid in resource and hazards assessments.

More recently, the WB-57s have also carried BACN – Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payloads in Afghanistan, often testing fnew sensors and antennas used by the BACN to relay comms between command and control centers and ground troops located within valleys and ridges in the Afghan mountains during specific testing campaigns from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Surely, with up to 6,000-lb payload carried and a pallet system under the main fuselage area, this aircraft can fulfil a wide variety of special data gathering missions,.




U.S. Tests Minuteman Missile Amid North Korean Tension and Proposed ICBM Upgrade

Latest Pacific ICBM Test Proves U.S. Readiness in Turbulent Region as Tensions Rise.

The U.S. Air Force has conducted an operational test of its LGM-30 Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The missile was unarmed, carrying a single test reentry vehicle according to the Global Strike Command.

Members of the 90th Missile Wing based at Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming conducted the test launch from California. The missile was launched yesterday morning, August 2, at 2:10 California time.

The single simulated reentry vehicle covered 4,200 miles on its way to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It landed in a missile test range used by the U.S.

In an operational attack the LGM-30 would be armed with a Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle or “MIRV”. The MIRV payload on a Minuteman III includes three separate 300-500 kiloton nuclear warheads with independent targets. The warheads separate upon reentry into earth’s atmosphere above their predetermined targets and strike over a wide area. The use of multiple reentry vehicles for large warheads makes intercepting them over a large target area nearly impossible. The missile’s NS-50 inertial navigation system is largely immune to countermeasures once launched and is accurate to within 200 meters according to the Minuteman III’s builder, Boeing.

The operational LGM-30 Minuteman III is armed with multiple reentry vehicle warheads to strike several targets simultaneously. (Graphic: Wiki)

The U.S. currently fields 450 nuclear-armed operational LGM-30 Minuteman III missiles.

Set against the backdrop of this week’s missile launch, Boeing strategic deterrence chief Frank McCall told reporters the Minuteman III is an aging legacy ICBM platform from the 1950’s. According to McCall, the Minuteman ICBM platform was only intended to “Last a decade”.

During the late 1980’s the U.S. fielded the LGM-118 Peacekeeper ICBM. The LGM-118, popularly known as the “MX missile” was intended to be a survivable solution to a Soviet nuclear first strike on the continental U.S. Controversy over weapons treaties and basing for the MX missile limited its deployment to only 50 missiles using existing Minuteman missile silos until the program was cancelled entirely in September 2005.

An operational Boeing LGM-30 Minuteman III ICBM in its underground launch silo. (Photo: Boeing)

The U.S. Air Force has proposed the need for an all-new ICBM design concept to replace the aging Minuteman platform called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent or “GBSD” missile program. Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop are each competing for the new GBSD contract.

The proposed new GBSD concept is intended to be an “open-architecture, modular” design that is highly adaptive to mission requirements and can be readily updated to maintain technical superiority and strategic relevance.

As with all major defense programs, costs for the proposed GBSD program have been criticized. Several media outlets have published estimates of $85 billion spread over a 20-year program for a force of 400 missiles.

While North Korea has made rapid and significant progress in their long-range missile program and nuclear program to include weapons research the strategic balance still tips very heavily in favor of the United States. The U.S. remains the only country to employ nuclear weapons operationally when it launched manned nuclear strikes from strategic bombers on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Since the operational nuclear strikes at the end of WWII and throughout the Cold War the U.S. has relied on a “nuclear triad” of three different strategic nuclear launch platforms that include Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and a variety of air-delivered nuclear weapons that include air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), Short Range Attack Missiles (SRAMs) and the now antiquated but still operational air-dropped nuclear bombs.

Time to strike targets in North Korea from missile bases in the U.S. Midwest and West coast may be less than 40 minutes from launch to impact, but submarine launched ballistic missiles deployed closer to the Korean peninsula would likely have weapons on target in much less time.

This most recent missile test was planned in advance of Korean tests according to the Pentagon, but it is reasonable to suggest it transmits a clear message that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is current and capable.