Skip to comments.Aerospace milestones celebrated
Posted on 01/01/2004 11:02:20 AM PST by BenLurkin
Marking 100 years of man's success in conquering the skies, 2003 saw milestones for both what has been done and what is yet to come. Celebrations throughout the year culminated in the Dec. 17 anniversary of the Wright brothers' first successful powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., a feat which set in motion changes that are still being felt and improved upon today.
In the century since that flight, worldwide air travel has become common; space travel has moved from science fiction to reality; and air power has altered warfare.
Although the Centennial of Flight marked a success, the year began with tragedy. On Feb. 1, the space shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry, killing the seven astronauts on board.
While the entire nation mourned the loss, the tragedy carried more meaning for many in the Antelope Valley, birthplace of each of the orbiters and often the landing site.
Mourners remembered the astronauts at Edwards Air Force Base and Lancaster Municipal Stadium. Thousands in the Valley remembered the STS-107 crew: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Blair Salton Clark and Ilan Ramon.
Many knew crew members personally. Rick Husband was a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and was once stationed at Edwards. Others were known to people in the shuttle program.
The accident investigation found that a falling chunk of insulation from the external fuel tank damaged the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing. This allowed the enormously hot gases of re-entry to penetrate the orbiter, destroying it.
The shuttle fleet is grounded while NASA searches to improve the program's safety.
NASA itself is going through institutional changes, some of which will also affect the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB.
While the national space effort is grounded, others are moving forward, most notably Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne.
The project from Mojave-based Scaled Composites Inc. is the first privately funded space program.
SpaceShipOne is designed to be air-launched from the White Knight carrier aircraft, then use a rocket engine to boost it to 100 kilometers - 62.5 miles - above the Earth. The spacecraft is to descend to a runway landing.
Developed in secret for two years, SpaceShipOne and its unique carrier aircraft were unveiled to the public in April. The White Knight's first flight was in August 2002, and the first unpowered glide flight of SpaceShipOne took place a year later.
The spacecraft's first rocket-powered flight, reaching speeds of near Mach 1.2 (930 mph) and an altitude of 68,000 feet, took place over Mojave on Dec. 17, appropriately commemorating the Wright brothers' earlier achievement.
A rough landing marred the otherwise perfect flight and caused minor damage to the vehicle.
SpaceShipOne's hybrid rocket motor, the first designed for manned space flight in several decades, burns a combination of rubber and nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas.
The project is Scaled Composites' entry in the X-Prize race, an international competition intended to jump-start space tourism.
The competition will award $10 million to the first privately funded team to successfully build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers altitude and safely return to Earth, then do it again within two weeks.
Commercial space flight is also getting a boost at Mojave Airport as the facility seeks the first inland spaceport license. With seven rocket companies at the Civilian Flight Test Center there, airport officials have applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for a launch site operator license, commonly referred to as a spaceport license. This will allow the airport to be host to horizontal launches of suborbital vehicles and related activities such as ground test firings of rocket engines and launch vehicle manufacturing.
The FAA and the East Kern Airport District have prepared a draft environmental assessment and negative declaration for the spaceport project. The assessment found no significant impacts from proposed launch activities on concerns ranging from air quality to noise, safety and health.
The final environmental assessment is expected in January. The license should follow shortly after.
The Wright brothers' method of flight control is getting a new look in the Active Aeroelastic Wing program at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. A joint program with the Air Force Research Laboratory and The Boeing Co.'s Phantom Works, the program applies the Wrights' method of wing-twisting to modern aircraft seeking lighter, more flexible wings. This will create aircraft that are more economical to operate and that can possibly carry greater payloads.
The first phase of this program was completed in 2003, with 50 test missions flown using a modified and highly-instrumented .
Dryden researchers also completed evaluation flights for a revolutionary control system that could allow future aircraft to safely land if suffering major damage or system failures. The intelligent flight control system, tested on a research aircraft, could lead to a "self-learning" system that would automatically adjust flight controls to compensate for damage.
Dryden also suffered a setback for another of its projects. The solar-powered Helios prototype aircraft was lost in the waters of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, where it crashed June 26.
Built by AeroVironment Inc. as part of NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology program at Dryden, the remote-controlled Helios was preparing for a two-day endurance flight. The craft was tested at Edwards and is still managed at Dryden.
The 247-foot flying wing had control difficulties at about 3,000 feet altitude, causing it to pitch up and down. The aircraft sustained structural damage and went down 29 minutes into a planned 20-hour flight. The flight was to verify in-flight operation of the aircraft's new regenerative fuel cell system.
The Helios prototype logged nine successful flights, including a record-setting high-altitude flight of 96,863 feet in 2001.
Despite the loss of the $15 million aircraft, program officials plan to continue efforts to develop long-endurance, high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles.
Progress was also made with unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the X-45, a technology demonstrator for future combat-capable aircraft, and systems that would allow unmanned aircraft to share airspace with piloted aircraft.
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