Plane? What plane?
March 7, 2006 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Blackstar to orbit? Aviation Week & Space Technology reports in its most recent issue that a two-stage-to-orbit system may have been declared operational during the 1990s. The Blackstar system appears to have heritage from three other X-Planes, the X-20 Dynasoar, the XB-70 Valkyrie, and the X-30 National Aerospace Plane. [Related MeFi post] [via]
posted by Fat Guy (32 comments total)
damn. Mos Def and Talib Kweli can do anything. indie hip-hop, burgeoning movie career... and now we find they've been holding out on the aerospace all this time.
posted by ab3 at 8:14 AM on March 7, 2006

I'm not too surprised. One of the points of The Right Stuff was that the Air Force was working steadily towards orbital rocketplanes before Sputnik panic caused resources to get thrown over to the Mercury program in order to get somebody up as fast as possible.

And Wikipedia's X-plane articles are pretty good... it's fun to go back to the X-1 and work forwards.
posted by COBRA! at 8:31 AM on March 7, 2006

The thing that blew it for me were the supposed 'chipmunk cheek' C-5s that haul the orbiters. There's no documentation I've found on-line that even hints at such a thing, and planespotters would have noticed such an odd bird years ago. It's not like C-5s are stealthy critters, after all. A few HAVE been configured to haul satellites - but mods like those described would have been noticeable and noteworthy.

Plus, a cursory check of tail numbers don't show any ending in 005xx. Not saying there couldn't be any - but as I said the C-5 is a pretty large, well-documented aircraft. It's HARD to hide one of them, let alone three.

Naturally, sometimes the best way to hide something is to put it out in plain sight -

In the late-1980s, NASA had two C-5As (#68-0213 & #68-0216) modified to accommodate complete satellite and space station components. In each aircraft, the troop compartment, located in the aft upper deck, was removed and the aft cargo-door complex was modified to increase the dimensions of the cargo compartment's aft loading area. Both aircraft are currently assigned to Travis AFB in Fairfield, California and have been redesignated as C-models. (Some unofficial sources claim this modification also enables the C-5C to be used for covert transportation of classified material between Lockheed's Skunk Works in California and the test center at Groom Lake, Nevada, also known as Area 51. Lockheed and the U.S. government will neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of this speculation.)
However, the mods described wouldn't be called 'chipmunk cheeks' - it'd be a 'big-ass butt'. (Aircrew are hardly delicate about such things.) And the tail numbers don't match what's reported.

If this were the April 1st issue, it'd be clear this was a joke. As it is, maybe someone put something into the print queue a bit early...?
posted by JB71 at 8:36 AM on March 7, 2006

I can't help but wonder if this is a) smokescreen designed to take heat off the fabled Aurora spyplane or b) another project that competed with it, or possibly the "sightings" of the Aurora were, in fact, this particular aircraft.

Pretty cool stuff, though. Thanks for the post.
posted by TeamBilly at 8:52 AM on March 7, 2006

"Blame it on the black star
Blame it on the falling sky
Blame it on the satellite that beams me home."

posted by keswick at 8:56 AM on March 7, 2006

Whew. At first I thought that Dark Star was going to be orbiting. That thing would never come back down....
posted by Cassford at 9:18 AM on March 7, 2006

ab3 beat me to it.
posted by shmegegge at 9:44 AM on March 7, 2006

CRITICS ARGUE that there was never enough money hidden in intelligence and military budgets to fund a small fleet of spaceplanes and carrier aircraft. However, those who worked on the system's development at several contractor sites say they charged time-and-materials costs to a number of well-funded programs.

Why build one when you can build two at twice the price?
posted by ernie at 10:28 AM on March 7, 2006

Interesting, thanks. I would be surprised if AWST had an April Fool's joke.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:30 AM on March 7, 2006

One Pentagon official suggests that the Blackstar system was "owned" and operated by a team of aerospace contractors, ensuring government leaders' plausible deniability. When asked about the system, they could honestly say, "we don't have anything like that."

Aren't contractors convenient? "Torture? Assassination? We don't do things like that."


JB71: You obviously know a lot about the subject, so I'll generally defer to you on this, but couldn't a plane like that be kept fairly hidden at Groom's Lake? It's launched in the middle of nowhere and it's a high-altitude craft, so it wouldn't be cruising low over populated areas, generally (that SLC sighting being a notable exception). Isn't keeping this sort of thing secret kinda the point of Groom's Lake?
posted by brundlefly at 10:35 AM on March 7, 2006

brundlefly - The spaceplane itself would be easier to hide than the modified carrier plane, (C-5 Galaxy) used to actually transport it around. I think his point was that it seems someone should have spotted the "chipmunk cheek" modifications on 3 massive Galaxies.
posted by ernie at 10:43 AM on March 7, 2006

Example planes modified to carry odd shaped space program cargo: Guppies.
posted by ernie at 10:45 AM on March 7, 2006

Brundlefly -

That's an excellent question. Groom Lake IS the secret test facility. You can get an aerial view of Groom's Lake on Google Earth , and there's a couple of fairly large hangars at 37 14'38.83N 115 49.06 - but unless you've got some experience with examining aircraft and buildings from above, it's hard to judge scale.

So let me point you to some things you might want to take a look at that'll give you some idea of scale. Set the eye altitude to about 1000 feet above the actual elevation (I figure you're using Google Earth to view these things) and you'll get an idea of the size of the hangars.

Now let's look at some hangars - at the Lockheed plant in Marietta where they made the things. The building at 33 54'23.11N, 84 31'09.17W. holds 4 C-5s, two on each side. Again, set your eye height to 1000 feet above the elevation. Remember, a C-5 is about 225 feet from wingtip to wingtip, and about 250 feet long.

Yeah, it's a big building.

There's a boneyard to the south east, at 33 54'17.02N 84 30'44.65W that has 4 C-130s in it, for scale. There's a C-5 fuselage for scale at 33 55'07.95N 84 30'49.35W.

Okay, now we've got some yardsticks established, take a look at those Groom Lake hangars again. It looks to me like there's 4 of them, two pair joined in the middle. The jets to the west give some scale. If the concrete slab aprons around them are cast in 10 ft. squares, (and the size of the jets and vehicles makes me think they are, or maybe 12 ft) each hangar is about 120-150 feet wide and deep. You might be able to fit a C-130 in one with no trouble, but anything larger (and a C-5 is a LOT larger than a C-130) is going to poke out, even if you put it in diagonally. There's another hangar to the south that has a plane being pulled from it - but I can't tell what type that aircraft is.

But there isn't anyplace I see that could cover a C-5.

Now, supposedly the SR-3 launch vehicle is about the size of the old XB-70 - and we'll figure that at 185' long with a 105' wingspan. I might be wrong (I'm not a photointerpreter, I just play one with the help of Google Earth) but again I don't think there's anything at Groom Lake that could cover something that long. If it were smaller, you might be able to fit it into one of the fighter hangers.

As far as underground hangars go... well, I suppose that's a possibility, but looking from above I don't see where the taxiways would be for it.

I know this is kind of long-winded, but I hope this helps! (And welcome to the exciting world of photointerpretation, where headscratching is common, and cries of "What the hell is that?" fill the air...)
posted by JB71 at 11:39 AM on March 7, 2006

Ernie -

Depending on the size of the Spaceplane, it COULD be hidden - however, there's the launcher aircraft, described as about the size of an XB-70.

I think they'd park that one outside. (grin)
posted by JB71 at 11:47 AM on March 7, 2006

Things like this always deeply worry me.

I mean, there are very legitimate reasons for having a secret space orbiter, regardless of whether or not it's real. That's not what bothers me.

What bothers me are the systems in place to keep such things a secret. They are so fundamentally antithetical to an open, democratic government that it really makes me shudder to think that they exist in our (hopefully) open and democratic government. They're potential for waste, fraud, and downright evil is frightening.

But there's no easy way out of this conflict between a legitimate need for secrecy and democracy.
posted by teece at 12:16 PM on March 7, 2006

Depending on the size of the Spaceplane, it COULD be hidden - however, there's the launcher aircraft, described as about the size of an XB-70.

Oh easily- I was referring to the C5s, but the Valkyrie would tough to hide too.
posted by ernie at 12:48 PM on March 7, 2006

Useful scale if you're looking at an area photo -- the runway. The white bars on the runway indicate distance. The ones at the very end are the threshold markers, the two large rectangles are the touchdown point.

The distance between the "front" edge of the markers is 500' -- so the touchdown point is at 1000' That's true of both the 32-14 Runways.

So, there's a handy scale right there.

While you're looking about, scroll north onto the salt flats. Note the lines following out from the runway, then gradually curving east, then south.

Furthermore, they've got four runways marked out in the salt -- 9-27L&R, and 03-21L&R. It's very odd to see a left-right pair right next to each other, presumably, this is to keep wear on the surface to a minimum.

While they aren't maintaining most of that really long (16,000 feet plus) runway, with the rollout onto the salt and those long, curving lines, it's pretty obvious that they're set up to deal with something that has a very high landing speed -- but doesn't weigh that much (otherwise, it would dig into the salt flats too much.)

I know of one craft that requires a long runway, has a very high landing speed, and can successfully land on a salt runway -- but normally, it lands in Florida.
posted by eriko at 12:55 PM on March 7, 2006

Cooler than the 'flying Ming vase' that is the shuttle, IMHO. One wonders how much further space exploration would be now if NASA was not shunted down that blind alley. The CEV looks like Gemini Mk II, but still better than the shuttle.
posted by The Salaryman at 1:11 PM on March 7, 2006

Good points, Eriko. That's a trick I didn't think of. You know, it'd be nice if Google Earth had a map scale that adjusts for the height you're observing from.

Re the salt-flat runways, when you consider how much rain/year that area doesn't get, it's hard to tell how long ago those lines were put down. It could have been anywhere from the '40s on, from the dawn of the jet age when it would be nice to have a real long runway in case something went wrong. And of course, some experimental planes like the X-15 didn't even have brakes. (Makes for a long rollout...)

If you take a look at the lefthand paved runway, it looks like the northern half of it is unusuable. And they're putting in a new taxiway. Nice to see they're keeping the place up. (grin)
posted by JB71 at 1:15 PM on March 7, 2006

I like that there's a baseball diamond. I wonder what sort of ungodly high clearance you need to be Groundskeeper Willie at Area 51.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:44 PM on March 7, 2006

Sorry to interrupt your recreation, fellows, but it is time for Sgt. Pinback to feed the alien.

posted by Smedleyman at 1:54 PM on March 7, 2006

/yes I know it’s not exactly the same, but I keep picturing this kind of space program like that.

I don’t mind not knowing some things, as long as there is oversight by our representatives. Certain intelligence and military secrets should be inaccessible. But that’s gotten way way out of hand lately. This, for me, not so much.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:58 PM on March 7, 2006

Hmmm, I really wish this was true, if only because I really think the Valkyrie was one of the coolest aircraft EVAR. However, there are a few problems with this story, and not only the fact that hiding three C-5s sounds a tad difficult. Separation between mothership and second stage at high supersonic speeds is rather tricky, as this other deep-black programme previously showed.

But above all, considering the huge amounts of disinformation that is circulated about these matters, I'll always take any such "disclosure" with a few bargeloads of salt.
posted by Skeptic at 2:29 PM on March 7, 2006

A couple of things.
I think this kind of thing being leaked is a good thing for the Aerospace industry. If it wasn't leaked there would be no reason to go to the next step. But now that our "enemies" know this thing exists only gives them incentive to build better (faster, quieter, smaller, etc.) craft.
Two, I don't like the government having secrets.
posted by CCK at 3:53 PM on March 7, 2006

How about the fact that Boeing, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas were all said to be working on the thing at the same time. Sounds pretty unlikely to me...
posted by Chuckles at 5:13 PM on March 7, 2006

It's not unusual for major aerospace projects to have multiple prime contractors.

The AWST article cites a Boeing patent on the concept (link added):
Boeing is believed to be one of several major aerospace companies involved in the Blackstar program. On Oct. 14, 1986, Boeing filed a U.S. patent application for an advanced two-stage space transportation system. Patent No. 4,802,639, awarded on Feb. 7, 1989, details how a small orbiter could be air-dropped from the belly of a large delta-winged carrier at Mach 3.3 and 103,800-ft. altitude. The spaceplane would be boosted into orbit by its own propulsion system, perform an intended mission, then glide back to a horizontal landing. Although drawings of aircraft planforms in the Boeing patent differ from those of the Blackstar vehicles spotted at several USAF bases, the concepts are strikingly similar.
Here's one patent image* showing Boeing's carrier-spaceplane design, docked and undocked:

*(To view patent images directly, your browser needs a TIFF image plugin: see here for details.)
posted by cenoxo at 7:33 PM on March 7, 2006

It's not unusual for major aerospace projects to have multiple prime contractors.

Your going to have to cite some examples... Multiple contractors is common, but Lockheed McDonnell Douglas and Boeing working together isn't. pre 1995 examples prefered.
posted by Chuckles at 8:06 PM on March 7, 2006

Chuckles, major would have been a better adjective than prime. I'm thinking of programs like the Space Shuttle where several aerospace companies contibuted various components:
Development —
The Shuttle program was formally launched on January 5, 1972, when President Nixon announced that NASA would proceed with the development of a reusable Space Shuttle system. The final design was less costly and less technically ambitious than earlier fully reusable designs.

The prime contractor for the program was North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), the same company responsible for the Apollo Command/Service Module. The contractor for the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters was Morton Thiokol (now part of Alliant Techsystems), for the external tank, Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin), and for the Space shuttle main engines, Rocketdyne.
Another example would be the Apollo program with major contractors Boeing, Grumann, North American, and Rockwell.

Lockheed and Martin Marietta merged in 1994. Boeing merged with Rockwell in 1996, then with McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Since 1996 (missed your criterion by one year, sorry), Boeing and Lockheed Martin have jointly run the United Space Alliance for various space operations, including the shuttles.

It's not a big stretch that some of these companies may have worked together on Blackstar since 1990 (if it existed/exists). Besides, if it's highly classified, who would admit their participation?
posted by cenoxo at 10:36 PM on March 7, 2006

If you refer to my MeFi post linked from this FPP, you'll see that one of the amazing things about the X-33 VentureStar was the number of untested technologies it was supposed to implement: monocoque design, lifting body, aerospike engines, big composite fuel tank.

Back when Lockheed won the X-33 competition with this design, us lowly non-black-project-working aero engineers were marvelling at the ballsiness of the Lockheed concept. Now, if the AWST story is correct (and I think it is), the BlackStar project would explain a lot about the VentureStar: for one, the aerospike engines (which have never flown overtly) would have been tested for 10+ years under BlackStar before VentureStar ever took off, and so would the flying body and composite material technologies. In other words, Lockheed was betting that by the time the X-33 would enter flight testing, most of these exotic technologies would already have been debugged by the BlackStar project. That makes a lot more sense than going with not one, but 4 unproven, non-operational technologies.

Further, it stands to reason that the USAF would like to have some sort of project that would maintain R&D in large supersonic or hypersonic vehicles. With the XB-70 cancelled, and the B-1B mothballed, there is no non-covert large US supersonic aircraft operational, and that never made a lot of sense, from a strategic, long-term perspective. So, that's another thing that a purported BlackStar would explain.

And then there's the SR-71 retirement in the '90s, which again, never made much sense in aerospace circles: the SR-71 was one hell of an impressive aircraft and the "take pictures now, anywhere in the world, covertly" capability is just too good to let go, even if the BlackBird was too costly to maintain (the AWST article goes into that line of reasoning in detail).

The BlackStar, as presented by AWST (which I have to say, is the most respected aerospace publication anywhere), makes a lot of sense and "clicks" with a number of things that we know about USAF capabilities. It could be wishful thinking, and it could be reverse-engineering something to fit these "gaps", but I for one buy the story.

As for covering the C-5s, etc, I recommend reading "Skunk Works" by Ben Rich (who led Skunk Works during SR-71 development and was there during F-117 development). Lockheed was testing Have Blue (the F-117 precursor) from Burbank airport for crying out loud. Sometimes you have to look for something hidden in plain view.
posted by costas at 2:13 AM on March 8, 2006

This probably has nothing to do with the B-3 bomber...
posted by cenoxo at 8:38 AM on March 8, 2006

Sceptical Space Review Article about the AWST story that punches some holes in this theory...
posted by costas at 12:37 AM on March 17, 2006

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