A guide to the American aircraft and spacecraft created to conquer air and space.

American aviation and space exploration - the conquest of air and space!

The blackbird

There have been many incredible aircraft and spacecraft invented to push the boundaries of flight- this page is a guide to a few of the most interesting and important.

The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk

The dawn of aviation

On 17th December 1903, the Wright Brothers (see the picture to the left) became the first pilots to fly a powered aeroplane, when their plane, the Wright Flyer, covered about 36 metres! Since the first powered aeroplane flight, aviators have been on a quest to fly faster, higher and further.

In a little over one hundred years since planes first took to the sky, there have been many firsts and achievements, from Louis Bleriot crossing the English channel in 1909 (see right), to the first flights to space.

Even now pilots and astronauts strive to achieve ever greater feats in the air and space. NASA are currently planning a manned mission to the planet Mars, which would be a flight of over 70 million kilometers each way!

The Spirit of St Louis
The Bell X-1 nicknamed Glamorous Glynis

Breaking the sound barrier

After the second world war, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would become NASA, began experiments into how to make faster aeroplanes.

The biggest challenge they faced was the "sound barrier". This was not a real barrier, but was a phrase they used to describe the difficulties in making an aeroplane fly faster than the speed of sound (around 750 mph). To do this they developed the Bell X-1, shaped like a bullet, with stubby wings.

The X-1 was a challenge to fly - it rocket powered and was launched from under the wing of a large military aeroplane.

On 14 October 1947, test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first man to fly faster than sound in his Bell X-1, which he nicknamed ‘Glamorous Glennis’ after his wife!

Chuck Yeager
North American X-15 Rocket Plane

To the edge of space - the X-15

The North American X-15 rocket-powered aeroplane was one of the X-series of experimental aircraft, developed by NASA, and first flown in 1959. Like the X-1, the X-15 could fly faster than sound - in fact, during its 199 test flights, it flew faster than any other plane has ever flown. It reached speeds of over 4500mph, that is nearly seven times the speed of sound! Even now it holds the records for the fastest ever aeroplane.

The X-15 could also fly higher than any other plane, and on several of its flights it flew higher than 61 kilometers from the ground; an altitude that is classified as space!

Eight test pilots flew this remarkable aeroplane, the most famous of them being Neil Armstrong, who would later become the first astronaut to walk on the moon!

X-24 Martin Aircraft X-24 lifting body spacecraft

The X-24 - flight without wings

In the 1960's the US Air Force and NASA joined forces to experiment with aircraft that did not have wings, but instead had a wide flat fuselage often known as a "lifting body". The lift that is required to keep an aeroplane in the air was generated by air flowing over the body of the airplane, instead of by wings.

Scientists believed that the lifting body design would be the ideal shape for a reusable space craft. A design like this removed the need for thin wings that could be damaged by the heat generated during re-entry.

The X-24 was flown many times, at speeds of over 1600mph. Although no lifting body spacecraft was ever developed, what NASA learned flying the X-24 was used during the development of the space shuttle.

X-33 and Venture star lifting body spacecraft

The X-33 concept

In the 1990's, NASA began work on a Space Shuttle replacement craft. NASA worked with Lockheed on a new concept for space travel, the Venture Star. The X-33 was designed as an experimental spacecraft to test their ideas for Venture Star.

The new spacecraft would be a single stage to orbit craft - unlike NASA's previous rockets, and the shuttle, there would be no disposable booster rockets. The idea was that this craft would launch vertically, then fly all the way into space. Such a craft would be more reliable and less prone to failures, and easier and cheaper to make and operate.

There were many difficulties during development and construction. In March 2001, when the spacecraft was nearly complete, NASA made the difficult decision to end their involvement in the project, and Lockheed could not afford to continue alone.

The Lockheed U2 Spyplane

Spies in the sky

Not all advances in aviation were made for the benefit of scientific experimentation. Some of the most incredible craft were designed and developed in great secrecy, to spy on other countries

Two of the most famous, the Lockheed U-2 (left) and the Lockheed SR71 Blackbird (right) were built by America to spy on Russia.

They could fly incredibly high, and in the case of the Blackbird incredibly fast, so that Russian fighter jets could not attack them while they flew over Russia, taking spy pictures of Russian military sites.

Lockheed SR71 Blackbird spyplane
The Mercury Atlas Rocket

NASA's Mercury rockets - the first step!

The Mercury project was NASA's first series of rocket missions to fly into space. The first flights were unmanned, and many rockets were destroyed in accidents. The Mercury programme was used to test out everything that would be needed to eventually fly a man into space.

The first flights used a very basic type of rocket called "Little Joe" designed to be cheap to build. The earliest flights were used to test the safety systems and to work out how to fly a rocket! Many of the later flights used modified Redstone missiles as their rockets, which were themselves based on German World War 2 V-2 rockets. The final flights used a more powerful rocket design called "Atlas". These rockets were powerful enough to place a spacecraft in orbit around the earth.

There were 26 Mercury launches, mostly remotely controlled. Several missions carried animals into space to test whether they could survive a spaceflight. The final six launches carried American astronauts into space, including Alan Shepheard, the first American in space.

Gemini Titan Rocket

Gemini Titan Rocket - pushing the boundaries.

The Gemini Programme was designed by NASA to test advanced spaceflight techniques that astronauts would need to master to be able to visit the moon.

There were 12 Gemini missions, the first two being unmanned, and almost all of them set new records or accomplished new achievements in space.

Gemini IV was the first mission where American astronauts went outside their spacecraft. Gemini VII proved that humans could live in space for two weeks. Gemini X was used to test whether two spacecraft could meet and connect to each other in space, just like the Apollo spacecraft would need to do after visiting the moon's surface.

Many of the astronauts that flew on Gemini missions went on to walk on the moon. Both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were Gemini astronauts.

Apollo Saturn V Rocket

Apollo Saturn V Rocket - conquering the moon!

The Apollo programme began in 1961, with the aim of landing an astronaut on the moon, and returning him safely to earth again.

The most advanced space craft yet developed would be needed for such an ambitious mission, and a more powerful rocket would be required to lift the craft into space. The Saturn V was an incredible machine, generating more power than any vehicle previously invented. It carried two spacecraft away from the earth and into space- one to travel the 250,000 miles to the moon, and another to descend to the moon's surface.

The Apollo missions were successful, and astronauts first landed on the moon on 20th July 1969. Five more missions would successfully land men on the surface of the moon, and return every one of them safely home.

Find out more about the Apollo spacecraft here.

The Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle - a reusable rocket

The Space Shuttle (or Space Transportation System as it is officially known by NASA) was the first spacecraft that was designed to be re-used. Previous NASA rockets were used once only, and it was felt this was wasteful and expensive. The hope was that the Shuttle would make space travel cheaper, unfortunately this did not really work out as planned, and space travel even using the shuttle remains incredibly expensive!

The Space Shuttle launches vertically, attached to an enormous orange fuel tank with two reusable rockets attached to its sides. It has been designed only for orbital missions, and so always stays near to the earth, carrying cargoes like satellites or parts for the International Space Station in its large cargo bay. After re-entering the atmosphere, the Shuttle glides down through the atmosphere to land on a runway just like an aeroplane.

There have been five spaceworthy Space Shuttles built, that have flown over 120 space missions. By 2011 the shuttle had become too expensive to operate and NASA stopped using them.

The NASA Ares 1 rocket concept

Replacing the shuttle

NASA are working on rocket projects that will replace the Space Shuttle and Russia's Soyuz. These new rockets will be more like the Saturn V rockets that took NASA's Apollo astronauts to the moon, and are designed with re-usable parts to keep costs down. There are also projects for fully reusable space-craft, similar to the Space Shuttle, though they are smaller and simpler designs that should be much cheaper to fly.

Many of these projects involve private companies, who will build space craft that NASA, and other companies can hire to get crews, cargo and satellites into space. Some of these companies, including SpaceX are already successfully flying missions into space to resupply the ISS - the picture on the right is a SpaceX Falcon rocket being launched into space, though they aren't yet ready to transport people safely into orbit.

Until the new vehicles are ready, Russian Soyuz spacecraft will continue to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX Falcon rocket

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