[FoRK] archives: blackstar, the supposed two-stage spaceplane

Rohit Khare < rohit at commerce.net > on > Mon Mar 6 09:57:11 PST 2006

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Two-Stage-to-Orbit 'Blackstar' System Shelved at Groom Lake?
By William B. Scott
03/05/2006 04:07:33 PM


For 16 years, Aviation Week & Space Technology has investigated  
myriad sightings of a two-stage-to-orbit system that could place a  
small military spaceplane in orbit. Considerable evidence supports  
the existence of such a highly classified system, and top Pentagon  
officials have hinted that it's "out there," but iron-clad  
confirmation that meets AW&ST standards has remained elusive. Now  
facing the possibility that this innovative "Blackstar" system may  
have been shelved, we elected to share what we've learned about it  
with our readers, rather than let an intriguing technological  
breakthrough vanish into "black world" history, known to only a few  
insiders. U.S. intelligence agencies may have quietly mothballed a  
highly classified two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane system designed in  
the 1980s for reconnaissance, satellite-insertion and, possibly,  
weapons delivery. It could be a victim of shrinking federal budgets  
strained by war costs, or it may not have met performance or  
operational goals.

This two-vehicle "Blackstar" carrier/orbiter system may have been  
declared operational during the 1990s.

A large "mothership," closely resembling the U.S. Air Force's  
historic XB-70 supersonic bomber, carries the orbital component  
conformally under its fuselage, accelerating to supersonic speeds at  
high altitude before dropping the spaceplane. The orbiter's engines  
fire and boost the vehicle into space. If mission requirements  
dictate, the spaceplane can either reach low Earth orbit or remain  

The manned orbiter's primary military advantage would be surprise  
overflight. There would be no forewarning of its presence, prior to  
the first orbit, allowing ground targets to be imaged before they  
could be hidden. In contrast, satellite orbits are predictable enough  
that activities having intelligence value can be scheduled to avoid  

Exactly what missions the Blackstar system may have been designed for  
and built to accomplish are as yet unconfirmed, but U.S. Air Force  
Space Command (AFSPC) officers and contractors have been toying with  
similar spaceplane-operational concepts for years. Besides  
reconnaissance, they call for inserting small satellites into orbit,  
and either retrieving or servicing other spacecraft. Conceivably,  
such a vehicle could serve as an anti-satellite or space-to-ground  
weapons-delivery platform, as well.

Once a Blackstar orbiter reenters the atmosphere, it can land  
horizontally at almost any location having a sufficiently long  
runway. So far, observed spaceplane landings have been reported at  
Hurlburt AFB, Fla.; Kadena AB, Okinawa; and Holloman AFB, N.M.

The spaceplane is capable of carrying an advanced imaging suite that  
features 1-meter-aperture adaptive optics with an integral sodium-ion- 
sensing laser. By compensating in real-time for atmospheric  
turbulence-caused aberrations sensed by the laser, the system is  
capable of acquiring very detailed images of ground targets or in- 
space objects, according to industry officials familiar with the  

THE SPACEPLANE'S SMALL CARGO or "Q-bay" also could be configured to  
deliver specialized microsatellites to low Earth orbit or, perhaps,  
be fitted with no-warhead hypervelocity weapons--what military  
visionaries have called "rods from god." Launched from the fringes of  
space, these high-Mach weapons could destroy deeply buried bunkers  
and weapons facilities.

While frequently the subject of advanced studies, such as the Air  
Force's "Spacecast 2020," actual development and employment of a  
transatmospheric spaceplane have not been confirmed officially (AW&ST  
Sept. 5, 1994, p. 101). However, many sightings of both an XB-70-like  
carrier and a spaceplane have been reported, primarily in the western  
U.S. Only once have they been seen together, though.

On Oct. 4, 1998, the carrier aircraft was spotted flying over Salt  
Lake City at about 2:35 p.m. local time. James Petty, the president  
of JP Rocket Engine Co., saw a small, highly swept-winged vehicle  
nestled under the belly of the XB-70-like aircraft. The vehicle  
appeared to be climbing slowly on a west-southwest heading. The sky  
was clear enough to see both vehicles' leading edges, which Petty  
described as a dark gray or black color.

For whatever reason, top military space commanders apparently have  
never been "briefed-in"--never told of the Blackstar system's  
existence--even though these are the "warfighters" who might need to  
employ a spaceplane in combat. Consequently, the most likely user is  
an intelligence agency. The National Reconnaissance Office may have  
played a role in the program, but former senior NRO officials have  
denied any knowledge of it.

One Pentagon official suggests that the Blackstar system was "owned"  
and operated by a team of aerospace contractors, ensuring government  
leaders' plausible deniability. When asked about the system, they  
could honestly say, "we don't have anything like that."

Aerospace industry contractors suggest that a top secret Blackstar  
system could explain why Pentagon leaders readily offered the Air  
Force's nascent unclassified spaceplane project, the briefly  
resurrected SR-71 program and the Army's anti-satellite program for  
elimination from budgets in the late 1990s. At the time, an industry  
official said, "if we're flying a spaceplane, it makes sense to kill  
these cover programs and stop wasting money on things we can already  

U.S. and European aerospace companies have pushed two-stage-to-orbit  
(TSTO) spaceplane concepts for decades. Most large U.S. airframe  
manufacturers designed spaceplane-type vehicles during the 1950s and  
'60s, and XB-70 program documents include a concept for carrying and  
launching a low-Earth orbiter. Two former test pilots and executives  
for North American Aviation (later, Rockwell) said the company had a  
technically viable plan for such a system in the 1950s (AW&ST Aug.  
24, 1992, p. 25).

Boeing is believed to be one of several major aerospace companies  
involved in the Blackstar program. On Oct. 14, 1986, Boeing filed a  
U.S. patent application for an advanced two-stage space  
transportation system. Patent No. 4,802,639, awarded on Feb. 7, 1989,  
details how a small orbiter could be air-dropped from the belly of a  
large delta-winged carrier at Mach 3.3 and 103,800-ft. altitude. The  
spaceplane would be boosted into orbit by its own propulsion system,  
perform an intended mission, then glide back to a horizontal landing.  
Although drawings of aircraft planforms in the Boeing patent differ  
from those of the Blackstar vehicles spotted at several USAF bases,  
the concepts are strikingly similar.

One logical explanation given for why a Blackstar system is developed  
says that, after the shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986, and  
a subsequent string of expendable-booster failures, Pentagon leaders  
were stunned to learn they no longer had "assured access to space."  
Suddenly, the U.S. needed a means to orbit satellites necessary to  
keep tabs on its Cold War adversaries.

A team of contractors apparently stepped forward, offering to build a  
quick-reaction TSTO system in record time. The system could ensure on- 
demand overflight reconnaissance/surveillance from low Earth orbit,  
and would require minimal development time. Tons of material-- 
including long-lead structural items--for a third XB-70 Valkyrie had  
been stored in California warehouses years before, and a wealth of  
data from the X-20 DynaSoar military spaceplane program was readily  
available for application to a modern orbiter (see following articles).

DYNASOAR WAS TERMINATED shortly after President John F. Kennedy was  
assassinated in 1963, after $430 million had been spent on the  
spaceplane's development. Political opposition and the fatal crash of  
XB-70 No. 2 on June 8, 1966, contributed to the bomber program's  
being canceled before Air Vehicle No. 3 could be built. However, at  
one time, there had been plans to mate the two vehicles.

In XB-70 Valkyrie: The Ride to Valhalla, Jeannette Remak and Joe  
Ventolo, Jr., wrote: "One version of the B-70 could have been used as  
a recoverable booster system to launch things into low-Earth  
orbit. . . . The DynaSoar program, the first effort by the [U.S.] to  
use a manned boost-glider to fly in near-orbital space and return,  
was considered in this context in November 1959. The B-70 was to  
carry the 10,000-lb. DynaSoar glider and a 40,000-lb. liquid rocket  
booster to 70,000 ft. and release them while traveling at Mach 3.  
With this lofty start, the booster could then push the glider into  
its final 300-mi. orbit."

The two-stage U.S. spaceplane concept apparently has undergone  
several iterations since then, but the basic idea remained--launch a  
manned boost-glide vehicle from an XB-70-like platform (AW&ST Dec.  
24, 1990, p. 48; Sept. 24, 1990, p. 28). An aerospace industry source  
said the Air Force once used the "Blackstar" moniker, but others  
suggested the intelligence community referred to this TSTO  
combination as the "SR-3/XOV" system. The SR-3 is the large, XB-70- 
like carrier aircraft, while the small orbital vehicles drop-launched  
at high speed are called XOV-1, XOV-2 and so forth. At one time, the  
XOV designator meant "experimental orbital vehicle."

Based on information gleaned from multiple industry sources, the SR-3  

*A roughly 200-ft.-long, clipped-delta-winged planform resembling  
that of the North American Aviation XB-70 trisonic bomber. The  
forward fuselage is believed to be more oval-shaped than was depicted  
in a 1992 artist's rendering (AW&ST Aug. 24, 1992, p. 23).

*Canards that extend from the forward fuselage. These lifting  
surfaces may sweep both fore and aft to compensate for large center- 
of-gravity changes after dropping the spaceplane, based on multiple  
sighting reports.

*Large, outward-canted vertical tail surfaces at the clipped-delta's  

*At least four engine exhaust ports, grouped as two well-separated  
banks on either side of the aircraft centerline.

*Very loud engines. One other classified military aircraft may have  
used the same type of powerplant.

*Operation at supersonic speeds and altitudes up to 90,000 ft.

During the system's development cycle, two types of spaceplane  
orbiters may have been flown. Both were a blended wing/fuselage  
lifting-body design, but differed in size. The smaller version was  
about 60-65 ft. long and may have been unmanned or carried a crew of  
two, some say. Industry engineers said this technology demonstrator  
was "a very successful program."

The larger orbiter is reportedly 97.5 ft. long, has a highly swept,  
blended wing/body planform and a short vertical fin. This bulky fin  
apparently doubles as a buried pylon for conformal carriage of the  
spaceplane beneath the large SR-3. The "Q-bay" for transporting an  
optics-system pallet or other payloads may be located aft of the  
cockpit, with payload doors on top of the fuselage.

Outboard sections of the spaceplane's wing/body cant slightly  
downward, possibly for shock-wave control and compression lift at  
high speeds while in the atmosphere, whether on ascent or reentry.  
The only visible control surfaces are flap- or drag-type panels on  
the wing's trailing edge, one section on each side of the stubby  
vertical fin. A relatively large, spade-shaped section forward of the  
cockpit--which gives the orbiter a "shark-nose" appearance--may  
provide some pitch stability, as well.

The orbiter's belly appears to be contoured with channels, riblets or  
"strakelets" that direct airflow to engine inlets and help dissipate  
aerodynamic heating. These shallow channels may direct air to a  
complex system of internal, advanced composite-material ducts,  
according to an engineer who says he helped build one version of the  
orbiter in the early 1990s. Air is directed to what is believed to be  
aerospike engines similar to those once planned for use on the NASA/ 
Lockheed Martin X-33.

A former Lockheed Skunk Works official once expressed confidence in  
the X-33 prototype orbiter's powerplants, noting that "they have  
history." Whether this implies the aerospikes had flown before,  
perhaps on an XOV, or simply referred to ground test-firings is  
unknown. The X-33 was a prototype of what was to be the single-stage- 
to-orbit Venture Star (AW&ST Nov. 10, 1997, p. 50).

Technicians who worked at a McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis in  
the late 1980s and early 1990s said much of the XOV's structure was  
made of advanced composite materials. Some wing skin panels measured  
40 ft. long and 16 ft. wide, yet were only 3/8 in. to 1/2 in. thick.

"Two people could pick them up; they were very light," one said.  
These panels were stacked in a sandwich structure to obtain the  
required thickness, then machined to shape. Although much of the  
structure was honeycomb, it was "incredibly strong, and would handle  
very high temperatures," he noted. Inside skin surfaces "were ungodly  
complicated," though.

WORK ON THE ORBITER moved at a relatively slow pace until a "fuel  
breakthrough" was made, workers were told. Then, from 1990 through  
1991, "we lived out there. It was a madhouse," a technician said. The  
new fuel was believed to be a boron-based gel having the consistency  
of toothpaste and high-energy characteristics, but occupying less  
volume than other fuels.

Regardless of where they land, spaceplane orbiters usually are  
retrieved by one or more "fat" C-5 Galaxy transports. Three of the  
oversized aircraft were modified with 8-ft.-wide "chipmunk cheek"  
extensions on each side of the cargo compartment aft of the nose  
hinge point; an extra six-wheel set of landing gear that partially  
retracts up against the aft fuselage, forward of the ramp; a  
shortened upper deck, and two internal harness/cradle supports. These  
alterations originally were made to enable carriage of dome-topped  
containers measuring 61.2 ft. long, 17.2 ft. wide (maximum) and 16.7  
ft. tall at the highest point. The containers normally protected  
satellites during transit to launch sites.

In 1994, NASA sources confirmed that two of the C-5s (Tail Nos. 00503  
and 00504) were listed on NASA's inventory--although the aircraft did  
not "officially" exist, according to the agency's public records.  
Both transports apparently were deployed only upon orders from the  
administrator's office. The third oversized C-5 once had a red "CL"  
on its tail, and supposedly was used by the Central Intelligence  
Agency. All three C-5s may have been retired in recent years,  
according to a NASA contractor.

CRITICS ARGUE that there was never enough money hidden in  
intelligence and military budgets to fund a small fleet of  
spaceplanes and carrier aircraft. However, those who worked on the  
system's development at several contractor sites say they charged  
time-and-materials costs to a number of well-funded programs.  
Lockheed was the lead contractor for Blackstar orbiters being  
fabricated at McDonnell Douglas in the early 1990s, and workers there  
typically logged their time against a specific Lockheed charge number  
associated with that project. But their time might also have been  
charged to the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) and the Navy's A-12  
fighter accounts, they say. Both multibillion-dollar programs were  
canceled with little but technology development gains to show for  
massive expenditures.

"At first, [supervisors] said we were working on NASP, but this thing  
never looked like anything the public was shown," a McDonnell Douglas  
technician who worked in the company's "black hole" facility said.  
"Later, we were just told, 'Clock it to NASP and don't ask  
questions.' We never did anything that was really NASP--and money was  
never a problem."

Whether the Blackstar system was ever declared operational or not is  
unknown, but several orbiters may have flown over the years. A former  
program manager at a major aerospace company once declared, "There's  
no question; Lockheed is flying a two-stage space vehicle."

Interestingly, after both Lockheed and Boeing pulled out of the NASP  
competition (or were "eliminated") in the 1980s, they may have  
collaborated to develop the two-stage-to-orbit Blackstar system under  
a highly classified "fast-track" program. However, many other  
contractors' "deep-black" teams probably also were involved in order  
to bring the nation's best expertise to bear on what must have been  
daunting technical challenges.

 From http://www.aviationnow.com/avnow/news/channel_awst_story.jsp? 

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