Monday, January 23, 2012

The 'Un-Flyable' Space Shuttle

The first time NASA engineer George Ware saw a model for the space shuttle, four decades ago, it had a straight wing and tail like a fighter airplane. It had elevators, a rudder and an engine.

It was un-flyable.

"It was their idea that it was going to enter the atmosphere at a 60-degree angle," said Ware, who had just joined the Vehicle Analysis Branch at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., which was tasked with testing shuttle configurations offered by the Johnson Space Center and contractors.

"At some lower speed, closer to transonic, it would pitch over and start flying like an airplane," said Ware, now retired. "It would be on a reusable booster as well."

It was supposed to fly up to 50 times a year at $10 million per trip. But that return to Earth was throwing everybody, because air flow onto the straight wing as it came into the atmosphere caused the plane to crash, at least on paper. Models of all four candidate configurations had problems, and the two boosters attached to them and tested in various combinations didn't help.

Ware still has lab books that look as though they have red-inked brushfires ignited by failed tunnel tests of shuttle and booster. Langley wind tunnels logged 59,200 hours from 1970-82, with the work spread over a dozen facilities. That included time spent with what was the eventual shuttle: a double-delta shaped craft.

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