Editor's Note: We are happy to welcome Amy Teitel to our On Space team. Amy is a space historian. Find her excellent weblog at Vintage Space.
After it was unveiled in a press conference in September 1962, Reader’s Digest described the DynaSoar as a cross between a porpoise and a manta ray. In an era where spacecraft were either long sleek aircraft like the X-15 or blunt ballistic capsules like Mercury, it definitely stood out with its flat bottom and triangular fixed wing.
An artist's concept of a DynaSoar launch. NASA.
The Dynasoar, a U.S. Air Force project, was intended to be the first orbit-capable space plane. Like the shuttle that followed two decades later, the glider launched on top of a rocket, was piloted around the planet by an astronaut, and landed unpowered on a runway; its inherent lift made it controllable in the landing phase. But before it could fly, the Air Force had to make sure there was a way to get the pilot away from an exploding launch vehicle.
Neil Armstrong, who in 1961 was serving on the DynaSoar as a NASA engineering consultant, was charged with solving the problem. He approached the problem with the eyes of a trained engineer and experienced pilot.
The only full-scale DynaSoar build was a mockup. Boeing.
Mated to the 100-foot tall Titan rocket on the launch vehicle, the DynaSoar was oriented with its nose pointed upwards. The pilot, then, was lying on his back relative to the ground. An ejection seat and parachute, which was a pilot’s usual means of escape from an aircraft in trouble, wouldn’t do much good. From DynaSoar’s position, the pilot would eject laterally and fall to the ground before his parachute could inflate. It wouldn’t be a good day.
But the DynaSoar did have an engine, and Armstrong saw using it as the best means of clearing an exploding rocket. All he needed was for the engine to launch the DynaSoar 1,000 vertical feet in under ten seconds, and, happily, this was well within the vehicle engine’s capability. From there, it was a simple matter of finding the ground and gliding the DynaSoar to a runway landing. That was the easy part. As an X-15 pilot, Armstrong was used to making unpowered landings.
He had a method. Now he just needed a way to test it.
Armstrong started with the vehicle. He needed something with similar aerodynamic qualities to the DynaSoar and settled on the Douglas Aircraft F5D Skylancer. Modified, the all-weather fighter jet developed for the U.S. Navy became a good stand-in for the DynaSoar, similar in size and shape with its flat triangular wings.
The modified F5D-1 Skylancer Armstrong used to work out the DynaSoar launch abort maneuver. NASA.
With the aircraft selected, Armstrong went to DynaSoar’s planned launch site at Cape Canaveral to measured the lengths and distances of runways from a launch pad and drew a sketch of the layout. He brought that sketch back to Edwards Air Force Base and reproduced the layout of the runway and launchpad on Rogers dry lakebed.
Then, Armstrong flew the Skylancer as closely as possible to the DynaSoar’s flight path during a launch abort. He began flying the Skylancer about 200 feet above the desert floor at nearly 575 miles per hour. When he reached the sketched out launch pad, he pitched the aircraft’s nose upwards and began a steep vertical climb. He pulled 5gs ascending to an altitude 7,000 and 8,000 feet -- about where firing the DynaSoar’s engine would take him during a launch abort. He arced the aircraft over, rolled it upright, found the ground, and guided the aircraft to a smooth landing on his sketched out runway.
It was an effective method -- the USAF Test Pilot School even adopted the maneuver into its training program -- but more practical than usable. Years later, Armstrong confessed that although his launch-abort solution would have worked, he was happy he never had to try it in a real Dyna-Soar.