Legends have spread that the US has a secret superfast aircraft, about Mach 8, the Aurora, successfully hidden from the rest of the world. The legends I will talk about here are much closer to the truth. I have fictionalized a bit, to protect people’s identities… but those who already know the true story will see past the fiction part.
Chapter 1: An Airplane Without an Engine
I start the story in the 1990’s, when I was visiting a kind of rock concert just outside Nashville Tennessee. (The real story begins much earlier; at the bottom of this blog entry, I have posted my brief space bio, for my election this year to the board of the National Space Society.)
A Hungarian friend of mine introduced me to a real cool cat who was playing the drums,
and told us stories about fireballs and plasmas and how we could use them to make
an airplane so fast it could get all the way to outer space.
(If you think you can guess who the Hungarian is already, you’re probably wrong, unless you were at the rock concert yourself. I know a whole lot of Hungarians in Tennessee,
most of whom would never go to a rock concert.)
When I returned home to Virginia, I went to visit the cool cat one day where he worked –
the NASA Headquarters office in charge of aeronautics and astronautics. Everyone there said he was their “last scientist.” He had lots of serious technical publications out there, enough to do any university proud.
He told me a story. Everyone in the world knew that the fastest airplane ever flown was still just a measley Mach three plus something. Thanks to vigilant oversight by Congress, by aviation leak and others, everyone in this business in the whole world knew the basic story. NASA decided we could do better. We could really show the world by developing an airplane which could go Mach 5 to 6.
Some of you may say – “Wait a minute. Didn’t the space shuttle get to Mach 26,
which really was enough to get into space?” True, but it wasn’t an airplane. It was powered by a rocket engine, which needs to carry its own oxygen, which is expensive and limits performance. We are talking about airplanes here, for now.
Cool cat told me: We know we have to do this at Langley, in Virginia. But Langley has a problem. There is a woman who runs the body department, who proposes that we build an airplane without an engine. The man who runs the engine department proposes that we build an engine without a body. Because they asked me to look over this, on behalf of NASA headquarters, I told them that if they want an airplane to go to Mach 5 or 6, they would need to have an engine and a body both, with the engine in the body.
Later he told me: Congress ruled that I was guilty of gross misuse of authority, in questioning the judgment of the fine people in Langley, based on the obscure and questionable intellectual type assumption that you need an engine in a body to make it work. They have ordered that all the money will go to the woman with the body. Me, I am being sent to Siberia, and you won’t be seeing much of me from now on. I’ll really miss my old house and my old neighborhood…
Chapter 2: Unveiling What Was Achieved
A few years later, the top experts on high-speed aircraft from every major nation on
earth came to a closed meeting in Tennessee, to reveal their progress to each other.
I got to observe, in the peanut gallery, because I knew the Hungarian, and had funded some stuff.
Almost all the speakers were very embarrassed about the state of their programs. Programs had been cut back or cancelled all over the world. They had lots of paper studies and wish lists, but nothing was being built. The two big exceptions were Japan and the US.
The Japanese guys said – we have actually developed a viable new engine, the Atrex, which can go from Mach 0 to Mach 6, in one engine. Here are photographs of it. But we have a big problem. How can we test this engine? We have had some thoughts, like putting it on top of a fast train, or shooting it from a cannon, or hanging it at the end of a very long string which we could rock back and forth. But these would not be perfect solutions. We come here to ask one question: can anyone help us here? Does anyone have any better ideas how to test such an engine?
The US speaker proudly unveiled a Mach 5.5 airframe, and described HIS plans.
“We do have a bit of a problem testing this body. But we believe that the real issue in flying this kind of advanced body is to prove we can keep it stable as we go from zero speed to 100 or 200 miles per hour. For that, we have contracted with a maker of lawn mower engines in the MidWest, and we will be doing tests very soon to prove that we have a real breakthrough in stable control here. The real body design is scaled for 23 feet,
but we have an eight foot scale model suitable for that test.”
Finally, even though I was in peanut gallery, I couldn’t help myself. I raised my hand and said: “Look, guys, I am not an aerospace engineer here, but I do have a question. You (nodding to the Japanese) say you would like a better way to test your engine, and you (nodding to the US speaker) say there are some issues in testing your airframe up to Mach 6. To make these tests… has anyone considered putting the engine in the body,
to see if they could actually fly? At Mach 5 or Mach 6?”
There was great excitement in the room. What a wild, out of the box idea – putting the engine in the body, to test them both! Everyone adjourned to a nearby restaurant, where people sat around me, and started to consider plans.
But then, in walked The General. The general was a famous guy, who had made his reputation on how well he defended the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) project, which had been cancelled a few years earlier. The General stood high, looking down on us and the tables where we were working with a severe frown: “You all are engaged in SPECULATION. I say it again… SPECULATION. You know what that means.”
Suddenly the folks who had been smiling gave furtive fearful looks at me, signaling “oh my god, what you dragged me into…”. Everyone knew what a crime it would
be to be caught in the act of speculation. “It’s speculation, because you have no idea whether this engine would actually fit in this body.”
After a moment of silence and interesting face expressions, I said: “Actually, general,
there is no need for people to speculate on that issue here, one way or the other. Didn’t you guys (nodding to the Japanese) show us actually physical blueprints, with size and shape? Didn’t you guys (pointing to the US official team) do the same? Couldn’t you just compare those blueprints which you have with you right now, from your presentations?”
One more moment of stunned surprise and delight. “Wow, let’s do it.” They pulled out
their stuff.. and found it was an exact match, as if the two had been designed for each other. The Air Force was ready to schedule wind tunnel tests immediately. The Hungarian noted that it would take only a few million dollars to build the full 23 foot version, out of the metal matrix composite materials it was designed for. Not bad for breaking the world’s speed record with a real airplane.
But then… in walked the Friend of Al, with flashing dark eyes and a smile that could
remind you of an alligator at this time. “Wait a minute, you guys. Do you realize what you guys are engaging in? It’s called international cooperation. And you know who is in charge of international cooperation. NOT YOU GUYS. You wouldn’t want to cross the White House, would you? None of you should do anything at all about this, until and unless we discuss it in the White House and get a full clearance. What’s more, this is such an important issue, that it has to be a really high level meeting, with security. No
people without security clearances and high official status (glare at me) will be invited, to screw things up.”
After the meeting, a verdict was handed down: “It is a great insult to the fine leading aerospace companies in the US to suggest that the Japanese could build an engine that the US industry can’t. Also, there are political sensitivities about cooperating with the Japanese on advanced aircraft, given what Mitsubishi did to us in the past. We will postpone this project until after we have a suitable US-built engine available.” Which never happened.
Chapter 3: Quick Summary of Later Stuff
This was certainly not the end of the story, but I don’t have time today to go through all the major events flowing from there.
There was a creepy story about a woman WITHOUT a body, or at least no awareness of such.
There was more on the Atrex engine. Turns out, it was actually designed by a Russian guy, Belapin, who was invited to Japan for only five years. He understood what he was doing very deeply, much more deeply than most of our hands-on kinds of folks. When he left, they couldn’t figure out how to control the valves well enough to get beyond Mach 4. We could have told them how… but the Duke of the North of Japan got into a cat fight
with a Jewish investor from New York, both reliving The Old Days, and I am more interested in Mach 26 anyway.
From NSF, I funded a major project at ANSER and Princeton on ways to use plasma effects to make it easier to build a Mach 26 airplane. After awhile, I began to understand why some of the key folks at NASP had been pushing to get real flight data at lower speeds, to make their efforts real. Above all – I learned that Mach 26 kinds of speeds require really radical upgrades to body material and skin layers. (Maybe what we REALLY needed was a better body after all… much better than what the woman in Langley had.). The best hope of building a real, working, affordable Mach 26 airplane is “back to the future:” to build a reusable rocketplane, first, using skin technology developed years before by Boeing, through CIA contracts years ago. The technology has been declassified, but is close to being lost (if not lost already) through lack of use. The deeply classified but much publicized X37B rocketplane does provide a useful test of some related technology, including some competing technology for the skin… but for now, it looks as if it will be a whole lot more expensive, and may require a whole lot more maintenance, like the space shuttle.
Bottom line: it now looks very grim for the future of humans in space. Or on earth, for that matter. But there is still some hope… somewhere… I wish I really knew where.,,
Candidate Statement for Paul Werbos
For decades, I have worked to make human activity in space economically self-sustaining, with “multiplier effects” which make space more than just a” banana republic.” Space must open up big new markets. We must cut the cost of access to space to $200/pound. (That drives the economics of energy from space and the scale of other markets.) We need dogged efforts to connect the requirements all the way from nuts and bolts to global policies and politics.
In 1972, while getting a PhD from Harvard in Applied Math, I started the Harvard Committee for a Space Economy (HCSE). HCSE stimulated many new ideas. It provided a start for Mark Hopkins, and links to the Princeton group (O’Neill) and Drexler. George Mueller’s vision for the space shuttle inspired us, but Nixon’s response illustrated pitfalls in politics.
Teaching at U. Maryland (1975-1978), I included space in my course on Global Survival Problems, where I met Gary Barnhardt. With another friend, we founded the Maryland Alliance for Space Colonization, which got up to 500 members.
From 1979-1989, I became the DOE/EIA lead analyst for long-term energy futures. As Regional Director for L-5, I worked with chapters from New Jersey to the Piedmont. I served quietly but effectively as L-5’s representative to Congress, helping start the National Aerospace Plane Project (NASP). After my DOE colleague Gary Oleson became representative, I worked with him on a council of pro-space organizations leading to the founding of NSS.
Through 2010, I funded research from the Engineering Directorate of NSF. I funded AAC in Tennessee to apply computational intelligence to problems which plagued NASP. Based on their success, AAC briefly led America’s continuing effort in hypersonics (LoFlyte) after NASP cancellation. I cooperated with McDonnell Douglas, leading to the Handbook of Intelligent Control (White and Sofge), yielding methods to mass-produce materials for hypersonics and reduce the weight of thermal protection systems. I funded efforts to assimilate and improve a Russian approach (“Ajax”) to air-breathing vehicles fast enough to get to orbit. In 2002, I visited John Mankins, who agreed to “JIETSSP” – the last US government funding program for space solar power, which we ran jointly. (To learn more, search on JIETSSP at www.nsf.gov, or visit www.werbos.com/space.htm.) In 2009, I worked at the Senate on climate, energy, defense technology and space. Futures published my paper on a rational strategy to maximize the probability that humans really succeed in settling space.