02 March 2018

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Seven: Hypersonic NASA

Artist concept of Space Clipper Alpha c. 1985. Image credit: NASA
In January 1972, President Hubert H. Humphrey, mindful of the "aerospace depression" afflicting California, directed NASA to assist U.S. industry in the development of supersonic civilian passenger and cargo aircraft. California was critical to Humphrey's bid for reelection, and polls showed him to be neck-and-neck there with Republican candidate Nelson Rockefeller. The new program would, Humphrey declared, create tens of thousands of new aeronautics jobs.

At the same time, Humphrey announced that the United States would "taper off" manned spaceflight during 1975. Questioned further, he called for a "prudent reduction in spaceflight expenditure" during his second term in office.

Apollo spacecraft visited the Moon three more times after Humphrey's announcement. The Apollo 16 Lunar Module (LM) Orion landed in the lunar highlands near the crater Lade in May 1972. The Apollo 17 Command and Service Module Endurance, with a crew of two, reached lunar polar orbit after a three-day trip from Earth, mapped the entire Moon at high resolution for 28 days, and returned to Earth in three days (December 1972-January 1973). Total mission duration was thus 34 days, a new (though short-lived) endurance record. The Apollo 18 LM Challenger landed among the Marius Hills (July 1975) bearing Harrison Schmitt the only professional geologist to reach the Moon.

Between Apollo 17 and Apollo 18, NASA launched 85-ton Skylab A into Earth orbit on a two-stage Saturn V rocket (May 1973). The station, a converted Saturn V S-IVB third stage originally intended for the cancelled Apollo 20 lunar mission, received three three-man crews: the Skylab 1 crew repaired the station, which was damaged during launch, then lived on board for 29 days in June-July 1973; the Skylab 2 crew occupied Skylab A for 56 days in September-October 1973; then the Skylab 3 crew set a new endurance record of 85 days starting in December 1973. Skylab A's Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) was designed to observe the Sun.

Skylab B - originally the Apollo 19 S-IVB stage - reached orbit in May 1974 and received two crews: the Skylab 4 crew lived on board for 119 days starting in June 1974, setting a world spaceflight endurance record which stood for 21 years. The Skylab 5 crew closed out the program with a 58-day stay in January-March 1975. Skylab B's "stellar ATM" allowed Skylab 4 astronaut Karl Henize, the first astronomer in space, to study distant stars and galaxies.

Termination of U.S. manned spaceflight and NASA's shift back to aviation research - its prime focus during the four decades (1915-1958) it was a collection of laboratories governed by the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA) - meant enormous change across the agency. By virtue of its long association with aeronautics development (and, of course, its California location), former NACA lab Ames Research Center (ARC) became the prime center for Humphrey's supersonic development program. From the early 1970s until the early 1980s, ARC worked mainly with California-based contractors and flew test vehicles exclusively out of Dryden Flight Research Center near Los Angeles.

Robotic space exploration assumed a new importance for NASA: no longer were robotic missions seen mainly as precursors for piloted Moon missions. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, operated on contract to NASA by the California Institute of Technology, focused on planetary flyby and orbiter missions. JPL's four-spacecraft Grand Tour series explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston was, of course, hit hard by the turn away from piloted spaceflight; it shed more than two-thirds of its contractors and half of its civil servants by 1977. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, also hard-hit, proved more adaptable: under its second director, Wernher von Braun's long-time colleague Ernst Stuhlinger, it became NASA's lead center for space solar power and electric propulsion research. In 1978, NASA Headquarters made MSFC prime center for development of the Halley rendezvous mission, which would employ solar-electric propulsion to match orbits with the retrograde comet. NASA Lewis Research Center (LeRC) in Cleveland, Ohio, another former NACA lab, found roles in lightweight aircraft structures and nuclear power source development for robotic planetary missions.

NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, another old NACA facility, managed the three Viking Mars missions. JPL was its contractor responsible for the Viking Mars Orbiters, and Martin Marietta-Denver built the twin Viking 1975 landers and the Viking 1979 lander/rover. MSFC, which had managed the contract for the Apollo Lunar Roving vehicle flown on Apollo 15, 16, and 18, assisted LaRC with the Viking lander/rover's mobility system.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in suburban Washington, DC, focused on Earth-orbiting science satellites in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore. GSFC assisted MSFC with the Comet Halley mission in the area of instrument development, and worked with the Electronics Research Center (ERC) in Boston, which partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to develop remotely operated Earth-orbital repair and assembly robotics. GSFC also emphasized astronomy satellites.

Beginning in the early 1980s, supersonic research gradually expanded into the hypersonic realm (that is, to speeds faster than five times the speed of sound) and above the Karman Line (the boundary between air and space at 330,000 feet - 62 miles - above sea level). Without really meaning to, NASA once again launched astronauts into space; and, in 1983, President Charles Percy awarded astronaut wings to 31 test-pilots in a White House ceremony.

The following year, Percy called for a piloted "high-hypersonic" aircraft capable of reaching Earth orbit. He named the development program Project Space Clipper and gave NASA until 1990 to accomplish the task. Many in the aeronautics industry greeted Percy's speech with disbelief; they confidently predicted that a reusable single-stage-to-orbit aircraft was at least a decade away, and might not be possible at all.

Vice President John Connally, Percy's Space Council Chair and a former Texas governor, is said to have urged President Percy to adopt Project Space Clipper so that he could funnel money to NASA centers in Texas and Florida, states he deemed vital for his planned presidential bid in 1984, when he hoped that Percy would step down rather than run for a second complete term. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) rebounded as the "East Coast Dryden." MSC underwent a partial rebound as a lunar science institute and crew escape system and crew equipment design center.

Connally stepped down in March 1984 to seek the Presidency, but his ambitions were crushed when Percy opted to run for reelection. Percy won handily in the primaries and easily defeated Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, making him the first person to serve out a deceased President's term and continue in office for two full terms. Despite its link with Connally, President Percy continued to support Project Space Clipper.

On 23 January 1990, Space Clipper Alpha successfully accomplished Hypersonic Orbital Test (HOT) 1, the first U.S. piloted Earth-orbital space mission since Skylab 5. Using a "trimodal engine," Alpha flew from a KSC runway to low-Earth orbit, orbited three times, reentered over the Pacific, and flew at low hypersonic speed to a landing on the runway it had departed six hours earlier. A test-bed for hypersonic experimentation with room for only two pressure-suited crewmembers, Alpha flew to orbit six more times (HOT missions 2a, 2b, 3, 4, 5a, and 5b) before its retirement to the Smithsonian in late 1993. By then, two operational Space Clippers were undergoing systems integration and ground testing at Dryden.

Critics argued that Space Clipper was a sophisticated spacecraft with no mission. A 1989 MIT study (the Minsky Study) conducted for new President Paul Simon had, however, already identified a semi-automated/crew-tended space station as a logical next step for NASA. In January 1992, at the start of both his reelection campaign and the International Space Year, Simon called for just such a station to be built in cooperation with U.S. allies.

Roadblocks soon appeared, however. Space Clipper, with a mass at takeoff of 140 tons, had a maximum payload mass of just six tons, so could not economically launch the new station. In addition, NASA had pared down its stable of expendable rockets so that its most capable - the Titan III - could place only about 14 tons into low-Earth orbit. This was adequate for robotic Earth-orbital and planetary missions, which had been shrinking in mass since the mid-1980s, but was judged insufficient for launching a crew-tended Earth-orbiting space laboratory.

The Soviet Civil War of 1993-1995 also intervened. Following the Alma Ata Incident, President Simon grounded all planned NASA launches lest they be misinterpreted by the warring sides. Most of his second term focused on containing the conflict in Eurasia, which saw at least ten nuclear weapons exploded in anger within former Soviet territory.

During the stand-down, MIT continued research into the space laboratory mass problem. A 1994 MIT study found that a 14-ton space laboratory could be launched without science apparatus atop a Titan III and outfitted in orbit using the Space Clippers and automated assembly systems.

Spacelab 1 reached Earth orbit in 1999. The twin Space Clippers each visited Spacelab 1 twice per year to outfit the small station; then, after outfitting was completed in 2001, they continued the four-flight-per-year schedule to resupply consumables, change out experimental apparatus, retrieve experiment results, and service and upgrade on-board automation systems. Crew visits to the station, which included no living quarters, lasted no longer than 10 days. Spacelab 2 replaced Spacelab 1 in 2006 and operated until 2014.

The 1994 MIT report also pointed to space tourism's potential. In late January 2003, a coalition of long-established aviation companies led by Pan American Airlines launched the first commercial Space Clipper, Space Clipper-C, with three crew and six passengers on board. Pan Am selected them from a pool of more than a million applicants. They orbited Earth for four days, reveling in the sights and sensations of space travel (which, it must be admitted, included a fair amount of vomiting and some toilet accidents).

Though derided as a stunt, the Space Clipper-C flight led to dramatic changes for NASA, for it demonstrated that the U.S. citizenry had again become interested in piloted spaceflight. In January 2001, President Lincoln Chafee cited the commercial flight when he called on the aerospace agency to develop larger, more capable hypersonic orbital vehicles, upgraded expendable boosters, a permanently staffed space station, and a versatile tug that could be upgraded to land on the Moon bearing a crew. Chafee also called for corporate-government partnerships, with government accepting development costs and initial risk and corporations seeking to prove that robust piloted spaceflight could pay its operating costs.

The development risk associated with all three new systems was substantial, and concern mounted as the three-pronged piloted program threatened to divert funding from widely supported NASA projects, such as the Vera Rubin Space Telescope. The program received a much-needed shot in the arm in June 2007, when the Chinese-Siberian Alliance launched and recovered a hypersonic orbital vehicle, its first piloted spacecraft. A new space race developed as the European Confederation in partnership with Japan and the Central Asian Coalition in partnership with Ukraine and India launched piloted hypersonic vehicles to Earth orbit in 2009 and 2013, respectively.

The 245-ton Space Clipper Mark II, with a payload capacity of 16 tons, debuted in 2010. Space Clipper II's design drew upon ultra-lightweight heat-resistant materials manufactured on board Spacelabs 1 and 2. President Joseph Biden declared the three-vehicle Space Clipper II fleet operational in 2012.

The following year, a Titan IV booster with a Mark I Space Tug upper stage placed a 45-ton core space station into low-Earth orbit. The station, the fifth launched by the United States after Skylab A and B and Spacelab 1 and 2, was subsequently named Space Station 5. Like the two Skylabs, the new station was capable of supporting long-term habitation as soon as it reached orbit. NASA has gradually expanded Space Station 5 using Titan IV-launched 20-ton modules based on the Spacelab design maneuvered into place using automated Mark I Space Tugs.

Whether spaceflight can pay its operations costs remains uncertain. Some aerospace observers have argued that Space Clipper II is simply too large to pay for itself, while others counsel patience. Some - in fact, a growing number - argue that spaceflight is, after all, very young and is potentially important enough to operate indefinitely at a loss.

NASA continues Space Tug development. This year, in time for the 50th anniversary of the first manned mission to reach lunar orbit (Apollo 8, December 1968), the aerospace agency plans to launch a reusable dual Mark II Space Tug stack from Space Station 5. It will carry three astronauts around the Moon on a free-return trajectory and, after a high-speed aerobraking pass through Earth's upper atmosphere (made feasible by nearly 40 years of hypersonic research and development), return them to the station. Nine Space Clipper II flights will launch the Tug components and propellants to Station 5 for automated assembly.

Though funding is tight, in 2015 President Janet Napolitano called on NASA to land humans on the Moon in 2025 for the first time since Apollo 18. China, Europe, Central Asia, and their partners have subsequently announced similar plans, though none has offered a timetable.

There can be no doubt that President Humphrey thought only of short-term political gain in 1972 when he called on NASA to shift its focus to supersonic development. Nevertheless, as can be seen, his decision had important, far-reaching implications.

As I write these words in 2018, passengers can fly around the world non-stop in less than 10 hours. No major airport in the contiguous U.S. is more than an hour from any other. Monthly flights depart for tourist accommodations on board Space Station 5 (passenger numbers have, however, fallen off as the novelty of becoming motion-sick in low-Earth orbit has faded).

Soon the Moon will be within reach of astronauts for the first time in 50 years. There is already talk of a semi-automated/crew-tended base at one of the lunar poles, where Apollo 17 detected abundant ice in permanently shadowed craters. As NASA and its commercial partners experiment with Moonships and spaceflight cost reduction, one may be cautiously optimistic about our future off the Earth.

Note on the Presidents

In this alternate history timeline, which I call "Our Better Angels," Nixon is outed in 1968 for his behind-the-scenes negotiations with South Vietnam to extend the Vietnam War. As a result, he is never elected, Watergate never takes place, and the Republican Party continues on a moderate course. I cite as inspiration Gregory Benford's classic novel TIMESCAPE.

1969-1977 - Hubert Humphrey/Edmund Muskie - Democrat

1977-1979 - Nelson Rockefeller/Charles Percy - Republican

1979-1989 - Charles Percy/John Connally (1979-1984), Charles Percy/Garrison Dobbs (1984-1989) - Republican

1989-1997 - Paul Simon/Joseph Biden - Democrat

1997-2005 - Lincoln Chafee/Darcy Dixon - Republican

2005-2013 - Joseph Biden/Janet Napolitano - Democrat

2013- - Janet Napolitano/Hillary Weinstein - Democrat


  1. "Chinese Empire" "United States of Europe"....there have been some serious butterflies here, haven't there.

    1. Theresa:

      LOL - I actually changed China after you read it but before I saw your comment. I kept the USE but changed it to the Chinese Alliance. The Chinese Empire was mentioned in the novel 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - there are other 2001 "tributes" in my post. I also added Persia as a partner with the Central Asian Coalition.

      In my view, changing the President in 1968-1976 to Humphrey would have major effects. Vietnam would end sooner and we'd avoid Watergate. I should probably change some of the post-Humphrey Presidents - maybe Nelson Rockefeller would get elected in 1976.

      I think that supersonic airliners could affect the way the world worked enough to serve as humongous "butterflies." Likewise, hypersonic military aircraft could be destabilizing.

      I'm still tweaking this post - I want to shorten the paragraphs and some of the sentences, and find an illustration to stand in for the Space Tug.


  2. i like the 2001 reverences like Pan American Airlines, space station v etc.
    That "trimodal engine" is typical burn Kerosine with Oxygen ,then engine changes to burning hydrogen.
    its nice concept, the Soviets build such a engine and tested it: RD-701

    the most complex rocket engine i have seen
    it got 5 Turbo pumps ! powered by 2 preburner (oxygen/kerosene)
    kerosine and Hydrogen have apart feed-line into the two combustion camber
    already from at ignition Hydrogen is used to cool the two combustion camber

  3. I see what you did there by naming those particular presidents! But instead of having Al Gore elected in 1996, why not America's first woman president ... Geraldine Ferraro?

    1. Ferraro was Walter Mondale's VP pick in 1984. Like most VP picks, her qualifications were not stellar. At least she wasn't wacko, like Sarah Palin. I see her as a step toward diversity and equality in US elected offices. I would have picked a woman sooner than 2013 - I almost put Napolitano in 2005 - but we really needed her in Arizona at that time. I was thinking of making John McCain her VP.


  4. The "tripropellant" trick is interesting. As Michel mentionned, recently it got a major shot in the arm through Aerojet "Thrust Augmented Nozzle" studies which are very promising. https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/6.2009-4983

    I like your roster of alternate presidents. Very interesting.

    1. Archibald:

      I wasn't necessarily thinking of a "tripropellant" winged SSTO scheme, though that's probably right. I wanted to make it ambiguous. After all, I don't know a huge amount about SSTO, and who knows what technologies a focused effort might develop? I imagine Space Clipper taking off on jet engines, switching to its supersonic mode (probably the same engines), then switching to hypersonic/ramjet technology. Finally, for orbit circularization, rocket motors, which would also be used to deorbit. I imagine the wings would alter configuration, and wing shape might feed propellant and/or atmospheric oxygen to the hypersonic engines. Space Clipper would always be under power - it would never be a Shuttle-type glider.

      Thanks for the link - I'll have a look.

      My alternate Presidents are all people who at least considered a run for the White House. If Nixon had been stopped in 1968, I suspect we'd have seen a more liberal (that is, moderate) Republican Party develop. The parties would be more similar to each other, with real issues defining the differences. So, for example, instead of arguing about whether we should have universal health care and free college tuition, we'd argue over how to accomplish these things. I expect that "social issues" (which are mostly hot-button issues that distract from what it really going on) would take a back seat to dealing with the real world.

      I tried to keep time in office about even, but I ended up with ~28 yrs for the Dems and ~20 for the GOP. To restore the balance, I gave the GOP fewer one-term Presidents and I made Republican Kemp the "hero President" of this period for keeping the Soviet Civil War from becoming a global nuclear conflict. Dem Presidents of this period were mostly unextraordinary. Americans are OK with dull Presidents in this timeline.


    2. On Jet-engines/Ramjet tech like SR-71
      Maximum you get out combination is mach 6 (still mach 19 to go)

      Soviet design bureau by Myasishchev came up with M-19 SSTO
      it use also Jet-engines/Ramjet, for rest it use a NUCLEAR engine to get to mach 25 !
      understandable that M-19 never left drawing board...

      with screamjet you get to mach 10 (theoretical to mach 17)
      it look complicated but "relative" lightweight to combine Jet-engines/Ramjet/screamjet
      if you solve problem with stable supersonic airflow and combustion in screamjet engines.

    3. Thank you ever so much for this. It looks like spaceplanes may be making a come-back


      I seem to remember mini-STS shuttle stacks. Have anything on those--or what a TAV atop an SRB might have looked like?

      I seem to remember ideas for giant silos with just the TAV above ground level between two rectangular clamshell halves.

      The idea of dash on warning probes appeals to me.

      Imagine something ike Orbital ATK's NGL, or Athena III--but with silos.

      The idea is that a spaceplane, or perhaps a probe could be launched quickly to study fast movers, like this:

      A launch on warming ICBM stance for transient event science probes, since many discoveries are made before a liquid can ever be fueled up.

    4. But what were the Soviets doing for the past fifty years? I strongly suspect that they would have continued with a military-oriented space program based on rockets, and I'll bet they would have put up large space stations earlier than they did; even in our timeline they orbited the Almaz stations. Reconnaissance would have been a big driver of their program.

      Without manned spaceflight, I don't think the American public would have been as interested in space, and those JPL missions never would have been funded. (Heck, the Grand Tour wasn't funded in our timeline, was it?)

      Oh, and in our timeline, Nelson Rockefeller died in 1979. Humphrey might have lost in 1972 if the Republicans had adopted a "Who lost Vietnam?!" platform; I would have had Rockefeller win. And if the Soviets were making gains and continuing a manned space program, I could see the Democrats winning in 1976 with "Scoop" Jackson (Wikipedia: "A Cold War liberal and anti-Communist Democrat, Jackson supported higher military spending and a hard line against the Soviet Union, while also supporting social welfare programs, civil rights, and labor unions") ... and Jackson did try for his party's presidential nomination in OTL. He was called "the Senator from Boeing" so your hypersonic aircraft might have been politically feasible, too.

    5. HM:

      Oh, and by the way, Darcy Dixon and Hillary Weinstein are, of course, fictional. If US politics remained moderate in tone, new major players would have emerged. My assumption is that Dixon is an African-American man. Weinstein is, of course, a woman.


  5. HM:

    I tweaked the post to reflect some of your comments. What would the Soviets have been doing? I suppose they'd have placed more emphasis on high-speed aircraft, but otherwise probably the same stuff they did in our timeline, maybe at a slower pace. I doubt they'd have had any more success with robotic missions in this timeline than they did in our timeline.

    I reject the notion that without astronauts, NASA would die. That was a popular position for a long time, but the high level of interest generated by our robotic missions can't be denied. I take the position that a Nixon-era NASA budget with no Shuttle Program would have meant enough money to launch the Apollos and Skylabs I describe and fund Grand Tour (beefed-up Voyager with three spacecraft) and three Vikings (the last a lander with treads instead of footpads, making it a slow rover). I assume that Mariners 9 and 10 would have flown, as well as Pioneers 10 and 11. Halley rendezvous would have been the next big robotic mission, in the mid-1980s - that would have been a US/USSR competition. I didn't go beyond that.

    Jackson sounds like an interesting possibility, and I had assumed that Rockefeller might have lived longer had he received physical checkups like those Presidents receive. But I thought it would be interesting to kill Rockefeller in 1979 and give his VP, Charles Percy, 10 years in the WH. I also thought it would be fun to put Democratic US Senator Paul Simon in the WH during the collapse of the USSR. Scholarly - a bit like Wilson. BTW, Boeing is based on Washington state, right? Humphrey wanted to create California jobs. So, I expect California-based contractors would have been favored over Boeing, even if in our timeline Boeing had a leading role in SST.



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