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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 848-849

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Book Review

Flying Without Wings: NASA Lifting Bodies and the Birth of the Space Shuttle

Flying Without Wings: NASA Lifting Bodies and the Birth of the Space Shuttle. By Milton O. Thompson and Curtis Peebles. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. Pp. x+244; illustrations, bibliography, index. $27.95

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is well known for its work in putting Americans into space and on the moon. But, as NASA's dedicated aviation workforce pointedly reminds visitors, "Aeronautics" comes before "Space" in "NASA." Much NASA research has had and continues to have direct application both in aviation and spaceflight. This complementary and often contradictory relationship is well revealed in Flying Without Wings, written by Milton O. Thompson, now deceased, former chief engineer at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, with historian Curtis Peebles as coauthor. This work provides a rare inside view into the world of Dryden during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Thompson was one of many pilots who thought that there was a place for a piloted, controllable craft in NASA's space program. They felt strongly that a more efficient, less expensive, and more graceful way could be found to return a human from orbit than unceremoniously dropping them in the ocean in a Mercury or Gemini capsule. According to Thompson, "At Dryden we saw spaceflight as an extension of atmospheric flight. X aircraft would fly higher and faster, until finally they would go into space. The assumption went deeper than that, however. We believed we would fly into space" (pp. 16-17).

That belief was dealt a severe blow with the success of the manned spacecraft program in the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon and the cancellation of the air force's dynamic soaring--"Dyna-Soar"--space glider project. Furthermore, an attempt was made to develop an inexpensive recovery system that would allow astronauts to glide their capsules to a safe landing. Based on the designs of Francis Rogallo and flown by Thompson, the Parasev paraglider research vehicle with its uniquely shaped wing was not easy to fly, and after extensive testing it too was canceled. Undaunted, Dryden engineer Dale Reed persisted in his belief in the efficacy of lifting bodies. Despite official reluctance to sponsor a small subsonic program when NASA was heavily involved with the expensive hypersonic X-15 program, approval was given but with virtually no budget. Reed, a masterful salesman, quickly assembled a team that included Thompson and built a full-scale wind-tunnel model that, not coincidentally, could also fly. The plywood M2-F1, designed to be towed, was a unique, half-cone-shaped glider. It was the first step in a series of lifting bodies that--after extensive testing to overcame severe aerodynamic problems--produced surprisingly effective rocket-powered supersonic aircraft. The subsequent M2-F2/3, the HL-10, and the air force X-24A and B were instrumental in demonstrating the feasibility of wingless flight. [End Page 848]

One of the most significant results of the extensive tests in the 1960s was the decision to design the space shuttle as an unpowered glider for landing, saving millions of dollars and much needless weight. Today, lifting bodies are seen as the new generation of crew-recovery vehicles for the space station and as a possible shuttle replacement. None of this would have been possible without the leadership of the Dryden Flight Research Center and Milt Thompson, who was lead pilot on the M2 series of lifting bodies that first explored this new technology.

Written in an engaging style, this work provides a participant's view into the myriad of technical, political, and financial problems of flight research. Very little has been written so far on this important but little known program. While Flight Without Wings is not a scholarly treatise, it is a rich source of primary material from one of the program's most important participants, often humorous, always filled with useful, insightful information, much more...


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