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How The US Space Shuttle Lost Its Jet Engines

BuranOKGLI

Similar in concept to the USSR’s shuttle-clone Buran, the US Space Shuttle went through many design iterations including a concept where jet engines could be attached to the space vehicle for ferry and/or powered approaches.  The concept proved unfeasible and too costly.  Avgeekery contributor JP Santiago tells us why.

As design work by various aerospace companies began on the Space Shuttle program in the late 1960s, it was a given that the Orbiter would have its own jet engines. Having its own air breathing engines offered three advantages- they would allow atmospheric flight testing much like any other aircraft was tested and pilots could practice landings in the run up to an orbital mission. The engines also facilitated ferry flights, repositioning the Orbiter amongst various facilities (landing, launch, overhaul, etc.). Having its own jet engine propulsion also gave the Orbiter cross range capability upon return from orbit. Some designers envisioned the Orbiter rendezvousing with a tanker for additional jet fuel. But in the ascent and in orbit, jet engines and fuel for those engines was dead weight that subtracted from potential payload. Even if designers went with an Orbiter design that was unpowered on its landing, the 1970 and 1971 design studies prominently featured a fully reusable two stage Space Shuttle with a big flyback booster that would have to have its own jet engines. Some of the designs for the flyback booster were massive with a need for as many as twelve jet engines. Soon the design of the flyback booster itself began to take on technical challenges that rivaled that of the Orbiter design itself. The weight of up to twelve jet engines and the necessary jet fuel cut into the payload of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for the booster’s rocket engines. Many of the flyback booster designs would need approximately 150,000 lbs of jet fuel (for comparison, a Boeing 777-200ER has a fuel capacity of roughly 300,000 lbs). Consideration was then given to using liquid hydrogen as fuel for the jet engines which would cut out the need for jet fuel tanks. In June 1970, NASA issued contracts to GE to study the feasibility of using liquid hydrogen in the F101 engine being developed for the B-1 bomber. Pratt and Whitney also got a similar contract to study the use of liquid hydrogen fuel in the F401 engine, the planned naval derivative of the USAF’s F100 engine planned for the F-15 Eagle. Both companies showed that liquid hydrogen fueled jet engines saved about 2500 lbs of weight per jet engine compared to conventionally-fueled jet engines. The weight savings was modest at best.

A typical high key pattern.
A typical high key pattern for an unpowered approach to landing.

At the same time these studies were going on on how to save weight with Orbiter and flyback booster-mounted jet engines, with NASA there was a group at the Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB where unpowered landings were routine for many high speed research aircraft going back to the X-1 (the X-15 program being the most recent one at the time) and the graduates of the co-located Aerospace Research Pilot School had as a requirement that students demonstrate proficiency in unpowered landings using the school’s Lockheed F-104 Starfighters which were throttled down to idle for the practice sessions. Even more demanding were the unpowered landings made by the lifting body program aircraft that lacked wings and derived their lift from their tubby fuselage designs. Regardless of what sort of aircraft was used, USAF test pilots and the NASA-FRC pilots used what was called “energy management” where they traded altitude for airspeed on the descent and used turns to bleed off speed in preparation for final approach. The first step in unpowered landings was the arrival at the “high key” which was high above the touchdown point. From the high key, a gradual 180 degree turn was made that allowed speed reduction and descent to the “low key” which was usually abeam the touchdown point. From the low key, the turn continued allowing more speed to bleed off and the descent to continue until lined up for final approach. If at any point the speed was excessive, speed brakes or gentle S-turns could be used to get down to the necessary airspeed. The lifting body pilots found that on final approach, diving at the runway touchdown point 15 degrees or more improved their accuracy as the speed improved the stability and the speedbrakes could be used to moderate the speed build up on final approach. An assessment by one of the experienced lifting body pilots in September 1970 showed that in 30 landings on a 10,000 foot runway from altitudes as high as 90,000 feet and speeds as high as Mach 2, the dispersion of the landing points was only 250 feet.

However, the astronaut office in Houston at the Manned Spaceflight Center headed by Deke Slayton felt that unpowered landings for the Orbiter were too risky. Slayton was concerned that the test pilots were more proficient at unpowered landings than his astronauts would be, especially if they were returning from a 7-10 day orbital mission. The astronauts’ views carried considerable weight for good reason and it took the USAF to swing the design work in favor of unpowered landings.

I had posted previously that the Space Shuttle program’s development phase was taking place during a period of budget austerity. One of the keys to navigating the budgetary climate of the day was to be sure to secure as much political support as possible since Congress determined the program budget. But in 1970 the program had some close calls, narrowly avoiding funding cuts in both the House and Senate. The Air Force offered to lend its support as it saw opportunity in the Shuttle program to launch heavy reconnaissance satellites. But NASA had baselined the Orbiter design at the time with a 25,000 lb payload to orbit. The USAF wanted to put its heavy reconnaissance satellites into polar orbit and the Orbiter needed a payload capacity of 40,000 lbs. That much payload weight into polar orbit (and unable to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation for additional boost) was equal to a 65,000 lb payload launched for the Kennedy Space Center. NASA informed the USAF that the payload had to be baselined at 25,000 lbs due to the weight of the jet engines and their fuel. But it was apparent from the Congressional battles that NASA needed a strong ally like the USAF, so the jet engines were dropped from the Orbiter design and that allowed the payload capacity to orbit to meet the USAF requirements.

The idea of onboard jet engines didn’t end, though. NASA shifted towards the idea of removable kit that could be used for flight testing, ferry flights, and for return from orbit if the payload wasn’t maxed out. This also coincided with the 1971-1972 time frame when the flyback booster was dropped as too much of a technical risk and the Space Shuttle began to look more like its final design- an Orbiter with an external tank and solid rocket boosters in what was called the TAOS configuration- Thrust Assisted Orbiter Shuttle. The significant weight savings by going to a TAOS configuration also helped cut development risk as there was a considerable amount of experience already with solid rocket boosters and large external tank structures to hold cryogenic fuels.

The test pilots at NASA-FRC persisted in their opinion that jet engines were completely unnecessary in the Orbiter design. They had their long experience of over 10,000 unpowered landings since the X-1 program as their proof, but the astronauts insisted that the Orbiter was a much bigger aircraft than many of the X-planes. Another round of tests then were held by NASA-FRC, this time using their B-52 Stratofortress carrier aircraft. Set up in a high drag configuration with the engines at idle, pilots successfully and accurately landed the B-52. NASA-FRC then got some lifting body pilots who had never flown anything as big as the B-52 and had them fly the bomber through a simulated unpowered landing using energy management. They were able to land successfully and when the same pilots were asked to land the B-52 using a conventional powered low angle approach, none of them were able to do so. The test pilots the FRC even brought into two United Airlines pilots to fly the B-52 in simulated unpowered landings and they had no issue doing so, reporting that such landings were much easier than conventional landings. The test pilots then followed up the B-52 tests with the same tests using NASA’s Convair 990 which could simulate the Orbiter aerodynamics on landing.

NASA finally got agreement to go to exclusively unpowered landings on return from orbit for the Shuttle Orbiter, but the jet engines still didn’t go away. At the time of Rockwell’s award in 1972, the Orbiter design featured two engines that deployed from the payload bay and two more engines that could be mounted on struts. Less than six months later, the Orbiter design dropped the internally mounted jet engines completely and they were to be mounted as a kit on the flat underside when needed for flight testing and ferry missions. It finally took the ferry range to kill the engines completely from the Orbiter design. The Orbiter was similar in size to a Douglas DC-9 but had twice the weight. It had a lot of drag since it wasn’t optimized for atmospheric flight and the delta wing was highly loaded. With five jet engines mounted in pods on the underside and tank of jet fuel in the payload bay, the Orbiter had a ferry range of only 500 miles. With Space Shuttle sites across the nation and contingency fields overseas, a 500 mile range was simply unacceptable. NASA looked at aerial refueling during ferry, but this added complexity to a design that was already experiencing cost overruns. In February 1974, NASA deleted the jet engine requirement completely. As a result, both for flight testing and ferry flights, the Orbiter would need a carrier aircraft, but fortunately that was a lot more straightforward a development process!

Interestingly in the Russian Buran Shuttle program, there was an aerodynamic test analog designed OK-GLI that made 25 atmospheric test flights with four Lyulka/Saturn AL-31 jet engines mounted in nacelles in the aft fuselage. A fuel tank sat in the payload bay. The AL-31 is the jet engine that is used on the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker. Nine taxi tests and 25 test flights were made using the Buran analog from December 1984 to December 1989. The engines were used to takeoff and then were throttled back on the descent to landing. All of the flight testing took place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The operational Buran, however, would not have jet engines at all and the Antonov An-225 Myria was developed as the carrier aircraft to ferry the Buran orbiter.

JP Santiago is a proven #avgeek, artist, and an excellent writer.  He regularly blogs on his site Tails Through Time.  He also runs the aviation Facebook fan page The Chicken Works that showcases his artwork.  We are honored to have him as a guest writer on our site.

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Written by JP Santiago

Husband, Father, Physician, Artist, Photographer, and Aviation Über Geek...