Hypersonic weapons have been in the spotlight for the last few months, given the race between the US, China, and Russia to produce hypersonic missiles and aircraft… But, this race has been going on for a considerable time.
During the Cold War space race, the US designed a hypersonic aircraft known as the X-20 Dyna-Soar.
It was one of the greatest spaceflight projects in the history of astronautics – and now that aviation is closer than ever to creating an aircraft that flies at speeds in excess of Mach 5 (5,96 km/h or 3,705 mph), this hypersonic speed pioneer was very close to achieving that back in 1963 before it was abruptly canceled.
Boeing X-20 Dynamic-Soarer
The Boeing X-20 Dynamic Soarer, AKA Dyna-Soar, was a United States Air Force (USAF) program to deliver a space aircraft that encompassed a variety of military missions, ranging from aerial reconnaissance to bombing.
Exploiting the post-Sputnik craze, the USAF developed this space aircraft with the potential to be repurposed as a regular plane to defeat the Soviet Union in the space race… or deploy it as a bomber to wreak havoc in the Soviet Union.
24 September 1962. Unveiling the X-20 Dyna-Soar mockup. USAF program to develop a spaceplane for a variety of military missions, including aerial reconnaissance, bombing, space rescue, satellite maintenance and as a space interceptor to sabotage enemy satellites. pic.twitter.com/BGmhxzmjtq— Ron Eisele (@ron_eisele) September 23, 2021
And after the war, a large number of German scientists were recruited by the United States, carrying some valuable insights into the Silbervogel project.
This program spanned from 1957 to 1963 and cost $660 million (or $5.58 billion in 2022 dollars). But it was abandoned only after the construction of the aircraft began.
A mission of espionage… and destruction
The core mission of the Dyna-Soar was the photographic and reconnaissance of the Soviet Union. But, additional tasks would include the screening or destruction of Soviet satellites or even nuclear strike missions.
The capability to perform maneuvers in the atmosphere and change its trajectory was critical to carry out a nuclear attack without alerting radars – and Dyna-Soar could fly to targets at the speed of an intercontinental ballistic missile, making it almost unstoppable.
The Dyna-Soar program cancellation
Aside from the funding issues, the Dyna-Soar program faced two significant hurdles: uncertainty about the propellant to launch the spacecraft and the lack of a specific goal.
It was argued whether Dyna-Soar was more suitable for espionage, space missions, or strike operations. The program was way too expensive, and even if it had military and technological potential, it ultimately lacked political support from Washington So, the project was finally canceled.
However, regardless of the X-20 cancellation, it inspired the creation of other aircraft. The Soviets also attempted to replicate the model of the X-20 with the BOR-4, BOR-5, and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-105.
- Status: Canceled
- Crew: 1 pilot
- Length: 35.34 feet (10.77 meters)
- Wingspan: 20.8 feet (6.3 meters)
- Height: 8.5 feet (2.6 meters)
- Empty weight: 10,395 pounds (4,715 kilograms)
- Maximum takeoff weight: 11,387 pounds (5,165 kilograms)
Maximum speed: Mach 22 / 17,500 mph / 28,200 km/h
- Range: 25,000 miles / 41,000 kilometers
- Service ceiling: 530,000 feet (160,000 meters)
Hypersonic flights will be a viable option thanks to pioneers such as the Dyna-Soar
Maybe this project was too far ahead of its time and didn’t have a definite goal… but today, building the first hypersonic multipurpose aircraft has become a priority again – and not only for the United States but also for China.
The US or China could create the first mass-produced hypersonic aircraft, and the one who builds it will probably dominate the global skies for the next decades.
Featured image credit: X-20 Dyna Soar prototype by kosmoplánu. Public Domain.