How Neil Armstrong Saved the Dyna-Soar

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When the US Air Force unveiled a mockup of the Dyna-Soar glider to the press on September 19, 1962, Neil Armstrong wasn’t one of the seven pilots sitting on stage. He’d been on the roster, but just two weeks before the unveiling he’d taken a position with NASA’s astronaut corps.

Dyna-Soar was designed to be America’s first orbital space plane. It was an aerodynamic glider set to launch on top of a Titan rocket, orbit the Earth, then return and make an unpowered runway landing — not entirely unlike the space shuttle that came on the scene nearly two decades later. What’s more, the whole flight was to be controlled by the pilot on board.

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But, like so many rockets launching in the early 1960s, there was a real worry that the Titan might explode during launch. So in 1961, Neil Armstrong was charged with figuring out how a pilot could get away from a rocket explosion inside the Dyna-Soar glider.

In pre-launch configuration, the pilot was just 100 feet off the ground inside the Dyna-Soar whose nose was facing skyward. In his seat, the pilot was lying on his back relative to the ground. Because of that orientation Armstrong ruled out a parachute escape system pretty quickly. Ejecting laterally and having just 100 feet to fall wouldn’t give a pilot’s parachute enough time to open before he hit the ground. He’d get out of one bad spot and fall right into another.

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Instead, Armstrong looked at the Dyna-Soar’s engine and aerodynamics as a pilot’s chief ally in escaping an exploding rocket. He figured that if the engine could ignite and launch the glider at the rate of 1,000 feet every 10 seconds, he could quickly launch to a safe height that would give him plenty of time to find the ground and pilot the Dyna-Soar to a safe landing. It was good in theory, but he had to find a way to test the method. To complicate things, in 1961 there weren’t any Dyna-Soar’s to fly.

So Armstrong started by finding a stand-in vehicle. He settled on the Douglas F5D Skylancer, which, when modified, had the equivalent aerodynamic qualities as the Dyna-Soar. Then he went to the program’s planned launch site at Cape Canaveral to measure the lengths and distances of possible runways from the launch pad. He drew a sketch of the layout, took it back to Edwards Air Force Base, and reproduced his sketch on Rogers dry lakebed.

With a strip representing the runway and a square representing the launch pad, Armstrong got in the Skylancer and flew the launch abort profile he’d come up with.

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He began flying the Skylancer 200 feet above the ground at nearly 575 miles per hour. When he reached the sketched out launch pad, he pitched the aircraft’s nose up and entered a steep vertical climb, pulling 5 gs as he flew straight up to an altitude between 7,000 and 8,000 feet — about as high as the Dyna-Soar’s engine could take him. Then he arced the aircraft over the top, rolled it upright, found his sketched out runway, and guided the aircraft to a smooth landing.

It was an effective but difficult maneuver, but still better in theory than in practice. Armstrong actually confessed that he was very happy to never try his own launch abort method in a real Dyna-Soar. No one did. That mockup unveiled in September 1962 was as close to finished as the Dyna-Soar ever got. The program was cancelled in December, 1963.

Image: Artist’s impression of the Dyna-Soar. Credit: U.S. Air Force