[FoRK] archives: blackstar, the supposed two-stage spaceplane
Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) <
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Tue Mar 7 07:43:10 PST 2006
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On 6-Mar-06, at 9:57 AM, Rohit Khare wrote:
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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
> SPACEPLANE SHELVED?
> 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 suborbital.
> 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 overflights.
> 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 package.
> 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 do."
> 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 features:
> *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 wingtips.
> *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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