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

Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) < fork at ianbell.com > on > Tue Mar 7 10:10:54 PST 2006

So maybe this is it:



On 7-Mar-06, at 9:24 AM, Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) wrote:

> 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 place?
> 	-	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:
> 	http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XB-70
> It'd be nice to think that the design lived on in some sort of  
> operational system.
> -Ian.
> 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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