Dyna-Soar Space Plane Is Developed

Dyna-Soar, the first operational, reusable piloted space plane, was developed out of a joint venture between the U.S. Air Force and NASA to build a hypersonic bomber at the height of the Cold War. Although the project was canceled within six years, the Dyna-Soar idea survived in part in NASA’s X aircraft experiments and, most notably, its space shuttle designs.

Summary of Event

Ten days after the Soviet Union’s successful launch and orbit of Sputnik 1, the U.S. Air Force Air Force, U.S. (USAF) and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), met to combine their efforts in hypersonic research and to begin a serious review of a possible follow-up project in conjunction with the X-15 X-15 aircraft[X 15 aircraft]
Experimental aircraft program. The X-15 flights would take a pilot to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, faster and higher than any flight before. Because this time marked the beginning of the space race, NACA believed the best project to accompany the X-15 would be a test of the possibilities of creating a piloted spacecraft that could go one step further: exiting the atmosphere and orbiting Earth. Dyna-Soar[Dynasoar]
Spacecraft, reusable
Space program, U.S.;Dyna-Soar[Dynasoar]
[kw]Dyna-Soar Space Plane Is Developed (Oct. 14, 1957-Dec. 10, 1963)[Dynasoar Space Plane Is Developed]
[kw]Space Plane Is Developed, Dyna-Soar (Oct. 14, 1957-Dec. 10, 1963)
Spacecraft, reusable
Space program, U.S.;Dyna-Soar[Dynasoar]
[g]North America;Oct. 14, 1957-Dec. 10, 1963: Dyna-Soar Space Plane Is Developed[05640]
[g]United States;Oct. 14, 1957-Dec. 10, 1963: Dyna-Soar Space Plane Is Developed[05640]
[c]Space and aviation;Oct. 14, 1957-Dec. 10, 1963: Dyna-Soar Space Plane Is Developed[05640]
[c]Engineering;Oct. 14, 1957-Dec. 10, 1963: Dyna-Soar Space Plane Is Developed[05640]
[c]Cold War;Oct. 14, 1957-Dec. 10, 1963: Dyna-Soar Space Plane Is Developed[05640]
[c]Science and technology;Oct. 14, 1957-Dec. 10, 1963: Dyna-Soar Space Plane Is Developed[05640]
Dornberger, Walter Robert
Dryden, Hugh Latimer
Sänger, Eugen
Bredt, Irene

Plans for this type of craft had been in the works in the United States since the early 1950’s. Also, Germany, led by the studies of the team of engineers Irene Bredt and Eugen Sänger, who were married, had studied the concept since the early 1940’s. Bredt and Sänger, the pioneer of ramjet technology, developed exact specifications for a craft that could function outside the atmosphere. Their craft was the Sanger-Bredt Antipodal Bomber Sanger-Bredt Antipodal Bomber[Sanger Bredt Antipodal Bomber] . The USAF and NACA used this team’s research in hypersonic flight and winged flight in near space in their Hywards, Robo, and Brass Bell projects. The Dyna-Soar was an amalgamation of these projects, born in a belated response to the Soviet Union’s progress and potential dominance in space travel.

Controversy began even before the Dyna-Soar program was officially started. The USAF had purchased the Dyna-Soar design from Walter Robert Dornberger, a German-born American engineer who worked for Bell Aircraft. After reviewing other proposals, project leaders chose Dornberger’s design early on. However, in November of 1959, Boeing Boeing was contracted to build the craft. Many believe the first mistake was to leave Dornberger out of the project. He had envisioned the Dyna-Soar as a carrier of nuclear weapons payloads, Space, militarization of but many of the project’s leaders disagreed with that idea, and throughout the ill-fated project there were disagreements among project leaders about the Dyna-Soar’s purpose. Some believed the Dyna-Soar should be a vehicle that would rendezvous with and destroy enemy satellites such as Sputniks 1-3. Others believed its mission should be to complete surveillance data from space. A long-term plan was to give the Dyna-Soar a payload capacity that would allow it to construct a “manned” orbiting laboratory (MOL) and eventually a permanent space station.

The development plan written in May of 1958 by General Thomas D. White White, Thomas D. , USAF chief of staff, and Hugh Latimer Dryden, NACA director, made it clear that they wanted the project to test the potential to use a boost-glide vehicle as a reconnaissance weapons system. NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration;reusable spacecraft which formally replaced NACA on July 29, 1958, wanted to integrate the Dyna-Soar into its own agenda. NASA’s main goals were to advance propulsion techniques, to use the Saturn rocket to put astronauts on the moon, and to complete a piloted mission to Mars. To accomplish this NASA believed it needed a piloted spacecraft that could orbit the earth and then the moon. The Dyna-Soar fit perfectly into NASA’s plan. Both the Dwight D. Eisenhower and the John F. Kennedy administrations backed NASA’s plan from 1958 through the fiscal year of the program’s cancellation. By May of 1959, NASA—and the U.S. Congress—turned its focus on two projects: Mercury Project Mercury
Space program, U.S.;Project Mercury and Dyna-Soar. Although the purpose of the Dyna-Soar craft was never clear, the long-term plan seemed feasible and important enough to garner a budget of $448 million in a six-year period.

With the project’s focus shifted, project leaders determined that as soon as Dyna-Soar became operational, it would be launched by a multilevel Titan III rocket. Once the craft reached orbital velocity, centrifugal force would allow it to glide into orbit. Internal jets would be used to control the craft’s altitude, and retro-rockets would propel it back to the earth’s atmosphere, where it would execute a glide home. There were great benefits to this plan over those of Mercury (1958-1963) and Gemini Project Gemini
Space program, U.S.;Project Gemini (1961-1966). Logically, a piloted spacecraft should have a pilot who can control the vehicle. This was not the case with Mercury. Furthermore, the Dyna-Soar was intended to be able to land softly on metal brush runners on any runway chosen by the pilot. The Mercury and Gemini landings were ballistic and semiballistic and therefore precarious. Unlike the precise, controlled landings of the Dyna-Soar, ballistic landings meant that the vehicles could not be reused. Also, and most important, a full-sized Dyna-Soar could be used to carry materials into space, much like NASA’s space shuttle would do beginning in the 1980’s.

The Gemini program succeeded while the Dyna-Soar program failed because, in part, Gemini took advantage of and expanded on technology used in Mercury flights. The infrastructure and research and development process was already in place, making Gemini more suitable for competing in the space race. Dyna-Soar, in contrast, was being built on equations and a dream. In six years, the Dyna-Soar program created only a full-size model and a simulated cockpit, and it chose the best rocket Rockets to launch the craft. On November 9, 1959, Titan Titan (rocket program) 1 was chosen as the suborbital test launch vehicle. (Martin-Marietta, with the assistance of engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center, designed the Titans for the USAF.) On January 13, 1961, however, more undecidedness set in as project leaders chose Titan 2 as the Dyna-Soar’s rocket. By April 28, the Saturn C-1 was commissioned. Finally, by December 28, managers decided to use the Titan 3 rocket instead. By this time the Gemini program, heavily influenced by the USAF, was under way, and months later the USAF realized that the Dyna-Soar would never be operational. On June 26, 1962, the Dyna-Soar was dubbed the X-20, signifying that it was strictly experimental. This meant that the X-20 would need an operational successor, but all federal funding was earmarked for the X-20; no money was left for a successor. With this in mind, the USAF decided to focus on the Gemini project, fearing it would be left out of the space program entirely. The Air Force also had plans for a piloted orbiting laboratory. On December 10, 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara formally announced the end of the X-20 program.


Although the Dyna-Soar program ended on a low note, its technology and configurations lived on. Dyna-Soar technology has been used in the USAF Falcon project, NASA’s X-24 project (1969-1971), and NASA’s X-38 project, which was to be the crew return vehicle for the International Space Station. NASA’s space shuttle program made the Dyna-Soar’s lifting-body-to-orbit technology operational in 1981. Technology from other sources was used in NASA’s space shuttle orbiter design, but the shuttle’s nose, fuselage, aft, and leading edges of its wings replicate, on a much larger scale, the Dyna-Soar model as seen in USAF photographs taken in 1962. Also, the tungsten arc process used to shape the body of the shuttle is very similar to the process that was used on the Dyna-Soar. Reportedly, more than thirty-five devices from the Dyna-Soar project were used in one form or another on the space shuttle, including a precursor to the cellular phone. Dyna-Soar[Dynasoar]
Spacecraft, reusable
Space program, U.S.;Dyna-Soar[Dynasoar]

Further Reading

  • Baker, David. The History of Manned Space Flight. 1982. Reprint. New York: Crown, 1985. Provides a thorough explanation and analysis of all major events in the history of piloted spaceflight from early theories in the late nineteenth century to NASA’s plans for a space station. Provides a detailed version of the Dyna-Soar program’s history and discusses why it was canceled.
  • Cadbury, Deborah. Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. An account of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Recommended.
  • Geiger, Clarence J. “Strangled Infant: The Boeing X20A Dyna-Soar.” In The Hypersonic Revolution: Case Studies in the History of Hypersonic Technology. Vol. 1 in From Max Valier to Project PRIME, edited by Richard P. Hallion. Bolling Air Force Base, D.C.: Air Force History and Museum Program, 1998. Explains the history, systems development, phases, cancellation, and technical legacy of the Dyna-Soar project. Includes diagrams.
  • Godwin, Robert, ed. Dyna-Soar: Hypersonic Strategic Weapons System. Burlington, Ont.: Apogee Books, 2003. Offers an updated and thorough narrative on the Dyna-Soar program. Includes information on the program not previously released. Also includes a DVD with rare footage of simulator tests.
  • Houchin, Roy F., II. “Hypersonic Technology and Aerospace Doctrine.” Air Power History 46 (Fall, 1999): 4-18. Reviews the Cold War political tensions that prompted the U.S. Defense Department to back away from the development of a “space bomber.”
  • U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. Staff Report of the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1962. Provides a time line of decisions made on the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Dyna-Soar programs. Describes the federal government’s vision for the Dyna-Soar project.

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