back to article US airforce looking at winged-rocket booster 'X-plane'

The US Air Force has announced that it is interested in a "Reusable Booster System" (RBS) - a combination of rocket and aeroplane which could replace the first stage of existing orbital launch stacks. After the upper stages separated and carried on into space, the winged RBS would glide down to a winged landing for refuelling …


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  1. TeeCee Gold badge

    Better late than never.

    "Prelude to Space" - Arthur C. Clarke. Originally written in 1947 no less (well, according to Wikipedia, your mileage may vary).

    Okay, his winged, resuable, first stage booster was manned and a fission ramjet, but otherwise identical in principal. Is the US military doing its research in the secondhand bookshops now?

  2. Osiris

    Banks in space

    "the service's Space and Missile Center and Space Command are in favour of the RBS concept. This... says that the RBS is seen as the best way to reduce overall space launch costs"

    So would that involve spending all their money, having nothing to show for it in the end and then getting the goverment to bail them out then?

  3. John Dallman
    Thumb Down

    Err, weight?

    Wings like that tend to be just a tad heavy. Yes, composite materials make them lighter. I predict a return of the Rogallo Wing, followed by the death of the whole idea.

  4. Andy Baird

    Sounds just like...

    ...the USAF's X-20 Dynasoar project (cancelled in 1963).

  5. Tom

    Sounds nothing like...

    ...the Dynasoar, which was a lifting-body orbit and re-entry craft. It had a detachable 2nd-stage boost module and the whole lot would have sat on top of a Titan rocket for launch. The shuttle has shown that re-using 2nd stage/orbital craft is complex and expensive. A reusable 1st stage is much more simple and the weight constraints are much more relaxed. This is a *good* plan.

  6. ciaran

    poor specs!

    "rocket-powered" ? Is that in the spec? Goodness how last-century!

    The most important part of the spec should be "for unmanned use" (or not).

    OK at least it says that the're not looking for solid-propellant boosters - like all the other boosters out there. What's weird is that the shuttle has re-usable boosters - certified for manned flight.

    So what's so wildly cost-cutting about putting wings on them?

    Sounds to me like the swan-song of some top administrator before going to retirement, who always dreamed of doing things like in the 50s si-fi books...

  7. David S
    Black Helicopters


    Can't wait until they find a copy of "Fountains of Paradise" then. There's an idea with legs...

  8. Peyton

    nice pic, lazy engineers

    So they just duct taped the Shuttle up, filled it with rocket fuel, and let a rip?! ^_^

    Still, it does explain the $85 million bill to decommission the fleet... I mean, that is gonna require a lot of duct tape.

  9. Tim

    @ teecee

    I haven't read that, but am impressed to hear of a fission ramjet- there was some hyper crazy US project to power a kind of gigantic cruise missile with those back in the 60s. It got cancelled for some reason, lucky for us.


  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bish bosh bash...

    GPS guided parachute on top of whatever rocket booster they've got lying around.

    I believe they have both components, the guided parachutes being used for spec ops resupply at the moment.

    Light and dirt cheap, slap a few air bags for landing if it gets dents.

    Job's a good 'un.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    George Lucas

    George Lucas lawsuit in 3......2......1.......DUCK AND COVER!!!

  12. Stevie


    Will this device cut the mustard?

    I hear a bunch of guys called "The Skunk Works" are only too willing to X-Plane it to us.

  13. Anonymous Coward


    Given that it's going to be called the RBS, can we have Sir Fred Goodwin as the [involuntary] first test pilot?

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Fireball XL5

    'Nuff said!

    TB2 didn't!

    More said.

  15. John Smith Gold badge


    The vehicle in Prelude to Space is IIRC 2 stages to the Moon. It's sled launched from an electro-magnetic catapult design (this was under development at Westinghouse in the US around this time so was SOA for 1947). It used ammonia which is a shade less efficient than H2 but a lot easier to store. Real rocket engineers were predicting LH2 for singles-stage-to-orbit. At least they were at RAND. The launch site is in the Australian desert and the time-frame is c1979.

    For what actual rocket engineers considered possible in the 1960s you might like to looke at Maxwell W Hunters "Thrust Into Space," Holt Rhinehart 1966.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Just a continuation of X-37/X-40

    Even the "artist's concept" is the same design.

  17. John Smith Gold badge

    Kneecapped from the start

    One of the reasons Lockheed's Advanced Projects Division (the actual name of the Skunk Works at the time) worked was because they tended to have free reign about *how* to get the job done in very broad limits. Functional spec, not implementation spec.

    It would have been much more interesting if the USAF had said no solids, no hypergolics but *no* limits on the launch mode.

    That tail end statement about "will consider other modes as well" is very weak. I suspect one of the usual suspects (including Orbital Sciences) has already pitched a design that fits that spec. like a glove. When the customer issues artwork *before* the proposals have been received you know someone's a shoe in for this. How big an innovation is this? TSTO with returnable 1st stage. That's Kistler K1. Lox/HC engines, K1 again. Speaking of which all those ultra high performance LOX/HC engines should still be in store with Aerojet. Hmm.

    This presumes that it is an actual project, and not another way to give some Big Aerospace contractor another life support payment to keep "Assured access". I also hope SpaceX don't get suckered into bidding for this. Rocket's with wings on them always *look* simple. They are anything but.

    Unimpressive, disappointing but not exactly unexpected.

  18. Paul Murphy
    Paris Hilton

    And of course there is also Orion/Daedalus

    Nuclear bombs to provide enough lift to shoot a cruiser-sized object into space.

    Very promising concept, very fuel-efficient and still the only way to get 10,000 tons into orbit. Funnily enough it seemed that the heavier the object the better the ride was going to be, since the mass evened out the thrust pulses.

    Shame about the radiation though.


    go on - you know you want to ...

    PH - go on, you know you want to..

  19. John Smith Gold badge

    A note on X-projects

    Successful experimental aircraft projects have had several things in common.

    They collect information only. You don't turn an x-craft into new product. You use it to design new vehicles.

    They have a very small number of core goals. X1 (go faster than sound), X15(effect of long term hypersonic cruise).

    They have tested either new technology or new operational ideas but not both. X11-12 tested the pressure stabilised tanks for the Atlas ICBM for example.

    Aircraft were usually built in a group of 3. 1 flying, one spare, one under modification for next round of tests.

    To be an X-plane this would be a sub-scale demonstrator of the idea.

    Mines the one with a PMP holding a copy of American X-Vehicles (SP-2003-4531) in it.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Why not use balloons?

  21. Aaron Hart

    RE: Nuclear powered cruise missile

    That would be project pluto ( wiki - ) , very neat, very spooky.

  22. John Smith Gold badge

    And the real problem with this design

    Is which US company can supply a LOX/Kero rocket engine in the kind of size that this will need. IIRC *only* the Pratt & Witney / Russian joint ventures RD180 is available now as a new build. Aerojet should still have their NK33/43's from the Kistler debacle. Impressive specs. and with a good few around for spare parts or replacements. The USAF seemed a bit twitchy sourcing the original RD180s.

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