A proposed Douglas Astro A2 Lifting Body was the wind tunnel model that Paul Kidder was kind enough to tell me about in July 2015, his email attachments including photographs of the actual solid mahogany model itself as well as artist’s impressions of the Astro at work and publicity material published by Douglas in the early 1960s.
The model has a wingspan of 17.75 inches (fin to fin), fuselage length of 18.5 inches and a weight of 11.25 pounds and old black and white Douglas Aircraft photos also acquired show some of the other shapes that were tested and a storage box that this might have had at one time, including a variety of different size fins.
The Astro A2 study dated from 1962 for a single manned spaceplane which could fly in the period 1968-1970. It would have taken off vertically piggy-back style on another manned re-usable winged rocket booster and landed horizontally on a runway. As such it was similar to the North American DC-3 and British BAC MUSTARD systems but smaller and making use of existing American rocket engines. After separating from the orbiter at an altitude of 82km, the Astro booster would have glided to a dead stick landing 830km from the launch site.
It was proposed that the Douglas Astro system would make 240 flights per year with a fleet of 12 boosters & 24 orbiters and a turnaround time between missions of less than 18 days. A mobile launcher erector – similar to that used by the German V2 and later battlefield missile systems – would eliminate the need for large Cape Canaveral type launching gantries and the need to crane returned Astro orbiters on to large jet aircraft to fly them back to their launch sites.
The planned service life was 100 flights for the orbiter and 200 flights for the booster. The engines would have been capable of 50 firings between major overhaul while the airframes would have lasted up to 300 flights). Douglas Astro A2 could have delivered a 16 851 kg ( 37 150lb) payload to a 555 km orbit and is seen in an artist’s impression, left, making a rendezvous with a cruciform space station. Although the concept of communication satellites is often credited to Arthur C. Clarke in his 1945 “Wireless World” magazine article, his vision of “extraterrestrial relays” was based on the radio valve technology of the time, which would have needed large manned space stations for maintenance.
As the 1950s progressed, more reliable transistors, and telemetry – the automated transmission of instrument readings – made radio repair men in space less necessary and the first real communication satellites – such as Telstar – were unmanned, automatic and powered by solar cells. Similarly, it was found that photographic reconnaissance from space could also be carried out by unmanned spacecraft and so the only jobs left for a large manned space station would be for pure science – both in terms of observing the Earth and Space beyond the scope of robots and for performing experiments in zero gravity. Without the need for repair men in space constantly changing vacuum tubes, the science fiction concept of a “wheel in space” spinning to create its own artificial gravity disappeared into the future – even beyond the optimistic vision of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”
Indeed, such a station – with its rotating ice cream parlours – would only make sense in the context of a regular space ship service to permanent bases on the Moon. As it is, America’s Skylab of the 1970s, the Soviet Salyut and Mir space stations and the present International Space Station have orbited at much lower altitudes than the geosynchronous Clarke Belt, are built from one or more modules sent up from Earth and offer only zero gravity to the inhabitants. Among the construction and re-supply vehicles for the latter structures was NASA’s Space Shuttle, which also – on other missions – captured malfunctioning satellites in orbit and brought them back to Earth for repair and re-launch and launched and repaired in space the Hubble Space Telescope.
These in-orbit repair missions used the manual skills of astronauts, either tethered to the Shuttle or using a rocket powered Manned Manoevering Unit but the Douglas artwork shows an astronaut in a cylindrical vehicle with robotic grappling arms. The Space Shuttle, in contrast, had the advantage of a larger robot arm in its cargo bay which could be manipulated from inside the pressurised section. As such, one astronaut could hold a satellite firmly to the shuttle while others went EVA to carry out the repairs themselves. Personally I would not have liked to have been the solo pilot/repairman sent aloft on this mission as the cylinder looks hard to enter and exit from the Astro 2 cockpit and liable to drift away from the re-entry vehicle!