April 5, 1963: First Flight of Joint USAF and NASA Lifting Body Program

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  • Air Force Flight Test Center

The first flight of the joint United States Air Force and National Aerospace and Space Administration (NASA) lifting body program took place when the M2-F1 was towed into the air by a souped-up Pontiac convertible. NASA pilot Milt Thompson was in the cockpit. The M2-F1 was a prototype glider shaped essentially like a half-cone with rudimentary steering fins. The aim of the lifting body program was to investigate the potential ability of wingless airborne shapes to make precision landings after powerless glide descents from high altitudes. This data would be useful in designing space recovery vehicles..

Lifting body is a fixed-wing aircraft or spacecraft configuration in which the body itself produces lift. In contrast to a flying wing, which is a wing with minimal or no conventional fuselage, a lifting body can be thought of as a fuselage with little or no conventional wing. Whereas a flying wing seeks to maximize cruise efficiency at subsonic speeds by eliminating non-lifting surfaces, lifting bodies generally minimize the drag and structure of a wing for subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic flight, or spacecraft re-entry. All of these flight regimes pose challenges for proper flight safety.  Lifting bodies were a major area of research in the 1960s and 70s as a means to build a small and lightweight manned spacecraft. The US built a number of lifting body rocket planes to test the concept, as well as several rocket-launched re-entry vehicles that were tested over the Pacific. Interest waned as the US Air Force lost interest in the manned mission, and major development ended during the Space Shuttle design process when it became clear that the highly shaped fuselages made it difficult to fit fuel tankage.

Advanced spaceplane concepts in the 1990s and 2000s did use lifting-body designs. Examples include the HL-20 Personnel Launch System (1990) and the Prometheus spaceplane (2010). The Dream Chaser lifting-body spaceplane, an extension of HL-20 technology, was under development as of 2012 as one of three vehicles to potentially carry US crew to and from the International Space Station. In 2015 the ESA Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle performed the first ever successful reentry of a lifting body spacecraft.  The lifting body was conceived as long ago as 1917, when it was described in a patent by Roy Scroggs.  However at low airspeeds the lifting body is inefficient and did not enter mainstream airplane design.  Aerospace-related lifting body research arose from the idea of spacecraft re-entering the Earth's atmosphere and landing much like a regular aircraft. Following atmospheric re-entry, the traditional capsule-like spacecraft from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo series had very little control over where they landed. A steerable spacecraft with wings could significantly extend its landing envelope. However, the vehicle's wings would have to be designed to withstand the dynamic and thermal stresses of both re-entry and hypersonic flight. A proposed solution eliminated wings altogether: design the fuselage body itself to produce lift.  NASA's refinements of the lifting body concept began in 1962 with R. Dale Reed of NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center.  The first full-size model to come out of Reed's program was the NASA M2-F1, an unpowered craft made of wood. Initial tests were performed by towing the M2-F1 along a dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base California, behind a modified Pontiac Catalina.  Later the craft was towed behind a C-47 and released. Since the M2-F1 was a glider, a small rocket motor was added in order to extend the landing envelope. The M2-F1 was soon nicknamed the "Flying Bathtub".

In 1963, NASA began programs with heavier rocket-powered lifting-body vehicles to be air launched from under the starboard wing of a NB-52B, a derivative of the B-52 jet bomber. The first flights started in 1966. Of the Dryden lifting bodies, all but the unpowered NASA M2-F1 used an XLR11 rocket engine as was used on the Bell X-1.  A follow-on design designated the Northrop HL-10 was developed at NASA Langley Research Center. Air flow separation caused the crash of the Northrop M2-F2 lifting body.  The HL-10 attempted to solve part of this problem by angling the port and starboard vertical stabilizers outward and enlarging the center one.

Starting 1965 the Russian lifting-body Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-105 or EPOS (Russian acronym for Experimental Passenger Orbital Aircraft) was developed and several test flights made. Work ended in 1978 when the efforts shifted to the Buran program, while work on another small-scale spacecraft partly continued in the Bor program.

The IXV is a European Space Agency lifting body experimental re-entry vehicle intended to validate European reusable launchers which could be evaluated in the frame of the FLPP program. The IXV made its first flight in February 2015, launched by a Vega rocket.[6]


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