Taking flight to the future on a wing and a prayer

Da Vinci’s study of the structure of a wing c. 1490

Some lectures are standing room only at the BIS and this long anticipated presentation was one of them. Sold out well in advance and with good reason, the evening didn’t disappoint. Erudite, modest and engaging, David Baker spoke with authority on the history of winged spacecraft. It was value for money, and more, for those lucky enough to have a ticket.

Wings, in all their many forms and guises, have been a symbol of flight for centuries, inspiring artists and engineers. One thinks immediately of Da Vinci’s sketches, the delicate traceries depicting wings and flying machines devised by Leonardo in the 15th Century; and the impossibly flimsy constructions – all stretched wire and hand-sewn canvass – that somehow allowed the Kitty Hawk to become airborne in 1903, making the Wright brothers immortal in the process. Eventually the wings that carried Man into the atmosphere also took him into space, first with the X-series of experimental aircraft, and then with the Space Shuttle.  The Shuttle is the only winged spacecraft to have travelled beyond the Earth’s atmosphere with a human crew of more than one. And despite its immense wings (redundant of course until the return voyage) even the Shuttle needed a lift on the back of a giant liquid fuel tank, coupled with two solid rocket boosters. Igniting such a configuration was always a chancy business, like trying to light and hurl the world’s largest Molotov Cocktail.

Da Vinci’s vision for a flying machine

Da Vinci’s vision for a flying machine

Future generations may look back and marvel that we let the Shuttle slip away, that we turned these once magnificent machines into museum pieces. Equally inexplicable perhaps is the USAF’s decision not to persevere with what might be called Project X, whose remit encompassed the legendary Bell X-1, X-15 and the X-20 Dyna-Soar (how’s that for names and a concept straight out of SF). But these delta shaped arrowheads –  all hypersonic muscle and sleekly contoured fuel tanks, worn smooth by friction and heat – were real spacecraft that went all the way to the outer fringes of the atmosphere, long before Gagarin and Glenn got there. It takes a special kind of courage to go “hunting for danger” in the upper stratosphere,  to seek out potentially life threatening faults in the design of the very machine you are flying, all in the quest to go higher and faster. The same type of courage, perhaps, that later allowed astronauts to climb on-board the Shuttle after the Columbia and Challenger accidents. And let no one tell you that the pilots of these, the very first astroplanes, weren’t true astronauts because they were; rather than merely occupying a capsule, they flew their spacecraft. It’s the difference between being in active control of a machine and just being along for the ride, a passive passenger with little to do but punch the occasional button. The X planes rose to the very edge of space and beyond, crossing the margin between atmosphere and void, where the Earth’s curvature is clearly visible and where no human can survive without a spacesuit.

And yet for all that, Mankind seems to gain its space wings only to abandon them in the process, as if in some bizarre twist on the Icarus myth. We have yet to fly anywhere near the Sun and yet we are already falling back to Earth, a descent which the next generation of spacecraft may be unable to forestall.  By comparison with the blood and guts launch of a Shuttle, Spaceship One seems almost like a toy, more racing car than space plane.  And “the trip of a lifetime” – when tickets sales actually translate into the real thing, for those wealthy enough to afford them – will be over before it’s scarcely begun. Long gone now are the days when space planes could stay in orbit for a week or more.

Sinatra was right when he sang Fly Me to the Moon; the lyrics captured the popular imagination at a time when people could still conceive of space-flight as an activity which had to involve wings of some sort. After all, in the 1960s and 1970s American spacecraft were still flown almost exclusively by test pilots, by fighter aces, who surely wouldn’t have left their wings behind when they took off for space. How else could they have got all the way to the Moon and back?  On astronaut wings of course.

Skylon can deliver communications satellites to geostationary orbit, using a recoverable and reusable Upper Stage: image designed by Adrian Mann

In reality, the vacuum of space is no place for aerodynamic surfaces and yet there persists a belief, in fiction at least – and perhaps in the minds of some engineers – that spacecraft should have wings. What are the huge engine nacelles on the USS Enterprise if not wings, as swept-back and poised for flight as the iconic emblem on the front of a Rolls Royce. Suppressed kinetic energy awaiting the moment of rapid deployment, like an eagle perched for flight.

A famous king of England once issued a desperate battleground plea, crying out for a horse in exchange for his kingdom. Perhaps that’s what NASA – or at least its private sector champions – needs again now: a horse of the winged variety, a mechanised Pegasus, so that astronauts can once more exclaim “What a ride, what a ride” as they soar up hill to space. It’s hard to see how any space programme will ever be able to fly without wings of some description.

Equally, it’s impossible not to believe that at some point we have taken a wrong turn, that we have slipped across into an alternative timeline in which space planes are a thing of the past and in which we seem unable to escape the confines of LEO, trapped by a lack of the very thing that once took humans all the way to the Moon: motivation. As always, young minds are the key. Somewhere out there, alive today, there is a kid, maybe already studying physics at school, who will think of a new way to get into space and to break the bonds of gravity. Maybe wings feature in his or her dreams already, attached to a spacecraft only they as yet can see.

Mark Stewart, FBIS

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