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

Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) < fork at ianbell.com > on > Tue Mar 7 09:24:36 PST 2006

The real question is:  If they're willing to scrap a two-stage-to- 
orbit system having previously scrapped the SR-71, what's taking its  

	-	Global Hawk has an acknowledged ceiling of only 65,000ft
	-	The U2 is still flying, has a ceiling of 70,000ft, and is due to  
be EOL'd by 2011
	-	The SR-71 flew @ 85,000 feet and is no longer in service

It's pretty clear that the more sophisticated bad guys have figured  
out how to subvert satellite surveillance.  The orbits of these are  
predictable and re-tasking a spy satellite is a monumental task which  
affects the lifespan of the satellite.  So there's clearly a need for  
a highly dynamic look-down capability for the US military that is  
unpredictable and can fly at safe altitudes.

The SR-71 was designed after Francis Gary Powers got shot down in his  
U2 as a hard-to-hit Mach 3+ spyplane which could penetrate the Soviet  
Union, outrun fighters and missiles, and be a little bit stealthy.    
Standard procedure for Blackbird pilots when a missile locked on to  
them was to hit the gas and out-accelerate the missile.  The SR-71  
was totally uneconomical and was stood down in 1989 but has been used  
intermittently by NASA for high-altitude research, MACH testing,  
etc.  Other systems like the supposed Black Star would have similar  
benefits to the SR-71, flying so high as to be practically impossible  
to hit and being flexible and unpredictable; but with the added  
benefit that it likely wouldn't be detected by most of the nations it  
was interloping on.

It could be that there simply is no further requirement to be hard-to- 
hit, or to be unseen, given the economics of maintaining exotic  
reconnaissance systems.  It could be that the political fallout of  
having a Global Hawk (which is pilotless) shot down isn't  
substantial, and thus doesn't justify the cost of more exotic programs.

OR maybe there's something cooler now in operation.

As a kid I loved the XB-70 Valkyrie for the purity of its design.  It  
was a way cool aircraft which used the shockwave to generate lift:


It'd be nice to think that the design lived on in some sort of  
operational system.


On 7-Mar-06, at 7:43 AM, Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) wrote:

> URL, with photo:
> 	http://www.aviationnow.com/avnow/news/channel_awst_story.jsp? 
> id=news/030606p1.xml
> BAD Rohit.
> -Ian.
> On 6-Mar-06, at 9:57 AM, Rohit Khare wrote:
>> Aviation Week & Space Technology   Login|Subscribe  |Register
>> 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 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? 
>> id=news/030606p1.xml
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