Everyone knows that the way into space is to put a small capsule on top of a large amount of volatile fuel and launch it into space with a thunderous roar. Until the Space Transportation System (Space Shuttle) was developed. Then everyone knew that the way into space was to strap a spaceplane to a tank containing a large amount of volatile fuel, strap on some additional solid-fuel rocket boosters, and launch the whole thing into space with a thunderous roar.
However, we didn’t always “know” these things. There was a highly successful program that reached space and used neither of these approaches. Instead, the approach was to strap a small vehicle under a large jet aircraft, loft the spaceship into the high atmosphere using the jet plane, and then drop the space vehicle a short distance to then let relatively small rocket motors take the vehicle from this high launch platform on into space.
The first such successful program was called the X-15. Thirteen of the X-15’s 199 test flights officially entered space and NACA (NASA’s predecessor) had preliminary plans to build an orbital version of the X-15. Most people don’t know about any of that because the X-15 program was quickly overshadowed by NASA’s manned space program with its Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules and astronauts. Even fewer know about the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a delta-winged lifting-body spacecraft also designed to hitch a ride into space under a B-52 jet bomber aircraft just like the X-15, or on a more conventional rocket boost vehicle. Few people know about the Dyna-Soar because the program was cancelled in 1963 and was never built. Capsulized space vehicles won the day until the Space Shuttle started flying in the 1980s. Now we’re going back to space capsules because winged space vehicles are perceived as too expensive.
But there are a few exceptions.
Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites are developing SpaceShipTwo, a space-transportation system that owes much to and somewhat resembles the Dyna-Soar/B-52 duo. Unlike the Dyna-Soar, which was designed to burn through the atmosphere like the Space Shuttle, transformed into a fireball from the heat of reentry, SpaceShipTwo uses a hinged wing and “feathering” to gently slow down from its perch in space without generating massive amounts of heat.
Thus SpaceShipTwo provides a strong example to IC designers of a way to “think different” (an Apple slogan that’s quite appropriate here). SpaceShipTwo illustrates that you do not have to slavishly use the design approach de jour just because “everyone else is doing it” when creating a new SoC design. There is plenty of room for creativity and innovation. As Jim Hogan noted two days ago at a MEMS conference held at Cadence, SoC design is currently migrating from processor-centric architectures to architectures consisting of complex, cooperating subsystems. That’s an alternative SoC design approach rapidly gaining traction because it’s a better match to the complexity required of today’s SoC designs.
To celebrate that opportunity, I present this video of SpaceShipTwo’s first flight to test the innovative feathering system. The flight took place on May 4, 2011 and the video was just posted this week.
And yes, I did read “Mike Mars Flies the Dyna-Soar” as well as some of the other books in Donald Wollheim’s Mike Mars series when I was young.