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The Extinction of the Dyna-Soar

Written by on Monday, July 23rd, 2012

For the past year-and-a-half, the USAF has been openly but quietly parading the top-secret X-37B across the night sky. They’ve been announcing its launch and return schedule, but past that the actual purpose of the spacecraft is a big mystery.

What we do know about the X-37B is that the spacecraft will be reusable, so the Department of Defense won’t have to break the bank every time they want to send something else into space. Based on the fact that the military has been tight-lipped about the spacecraft, it’s also safe to say that the X-37B probably has some sort of potential military application.

Even though the X-37B represents the pinnacle of technology from the 21st century, this isn’t the first attempt by the USAF to create a reusable military spacecraft. They tried once before — back in 1957.

The 50s and the 60s were a very different time. Nowadays, news about space travel is so commonplace that it’s almost boring. Back then, people all around the world were lifting their eyes to the pale moon and dreaming about space travel, scientists were tinkering with the mechanics of space flight, and the USAF was toying with the idea of a militarized spacecraft.

The USAF wanted to create a reusable spacecraft that could perform any mission imaginable, from space rescues and satellite maintenance to reconnaissance and bombing runs. This orbital equivalence of a Swiss army knife seems grossly over ambitious by today’s standards, but the USAF was serious enough about the idea to invest $660 million into the program ($5bn today).

Thus, they came up with the idea of the The Dyna-Soar (“dynamic soarer”), a reusable spacecraft that would do anything and everything the USAF wanted. If things had gone according to plan, it would have been America’s first spacecraft.

The design philosophy behind the Dyna-Soar was pretty similar to the X-37B: buy cialis online lowest price strap the spacecraft to a rocket, send it into space, and let it glide back down to Earth with its wings. They believed that they would be able to create a spacecraft that could skip across the surface of Earth’s atmosphere, kind of like a rock skipping across of pond, in order to strike anywhere on the planet. Essentially, the spacecraft would enter orbit and then slowly drift back down to the atmosphere at incredibly high speeds. There, its wings would generate enough lift to launch it back out into space. In theory, the Dyna-Soar would have been able to keep this up long enough to travel to anywhere else on Earth.

Nine different companies vied for this lucrative and daunting project, but it was Boeing that sealed the deal. They worked with the USAF to create a model and begin planning construction, but this ill-fated project would quickly take a turn for the worse.

The main problem with the program was that the USAF just didn’t know what to do with it. Would the Dyna-Soar provide better reconnaissance than satellites? Would it be a more effective bomber than conventional aircraft carrying nuclear payloads? Did satellite maintenance really justify a $5 billion repair program? These questions prompted Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to argue in 1963 that the USAF was pouring too much money into a pointless program. At that time, there simply weren’t any problems wherein controlled reentry was the answer.

The USAF was unable to justify the the expense, and the Dyna-Soar went the way of the dinosaur. It’s a bit ironic that now, 49 years after the program was cancelled, the USAF is back at it. America does finally have a need for a spacecraft capable of controlled reentry, but what that need is, exactly, is anybody’s guess.

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