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NASA M2-F2 Lifting Body crash 50 years ago became iconic on Six Million Dollar Man

As America raced towards the goal of landing a man on the moon before 1970, NASA’s attention was also focused on the construction and testing of a wingless craft capable of routinely returning from space piloted by an astronaut.

For 12 years beginning in 1963, engineers at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB in California worked to demonstrate that a pilot could successfully maneuver in flight and later land a specially designed wingless craft known as a lifting body. However, that vision was nearly lost fifty years ago this week in the tragic crash of one lifting body known as M2-F2.

It is the NASA video of that crash which set the stage for an iconic TV series which aired for five years during the 1970’s.

On May 10, 1967, lifting body project pilot Bruce A. Peterson took-off on his fourth glide flight aboard the M2-F2 — it’s 16th glide test flight — over the desert of Edwards. Great weather accompanied the last of a series of glide flights. The next series of flights scheduled would use the the XLR-11 rocket engine for powered flight.

Peterson was a veteran lifting body pilot having flown the earlier M2-F1 craft, and the heavy weight lift version, HL-10. A graduate of Naval Aviation school and an officer in the U.S. Marines, he later graduated from Air Force Test Pilot school at Edwards in 1962.

Built by Northrop Corp., the silver 22-fot long, 4,620 pound M2-F2 aircraft was designed to be airborne dropped from its attachment under the starboard wing of a an Air Force B-52 aircraft. The suited pilot would board the craft prior to take-off.
Once at the desired altitude, NASA 803 was dropped successfully and the craft began its planned steep decent into Edwards. Peterson guided the craft like a pro while performing a few test maneuvers on the way down.

“As Peterson neared the lakebed, the M2-F2 suffered a pilot-induced oscillation,” NASA spokesperson Yvonne Gibbs explained. “The vehicle rolled from side to side in flight as he tried to bring it under control. Peterson recovered, but then observed a rescue helicopter that seemed to pose a collision threat.”

Gibbs adds that Peterson radioed to get the helicopter moved as he feared the two would collide.

“Distracted, Peterson drifted in a cross-wind to an unmarked area of the lakebed where it was very difficult to judge the height over the lakebed because of a lack of the guidance the markers provided on the lakebed runway,” Gibbs added. “(He) fired the landing rockets to provide additional lift, but he hit the lakebed before the landing gear was fully down and locked. The M2-F2 rolled over six times, coming to rest upside down.”

He had no time to eject. The naval aviator was pulled from the craft and immediately taken to the base hospital. He was later transferred to March Air Force Base followed by a stay at UCLA Hospital. His injuries were not life threatening. Gibbs mentioned he lost vision in his right eye due to a hospital staph infection.

The story was a small blip on the evening news that night, however a generation of Americans, both young and old, would later watch the dramatic crash video each week for seven years on ABC-TV. From 1973 through 1978, the iconic opening credits for The Six Million Dollar Man incorporated Peterson’s crash with the images of fictional main character Col. Steve Austin. The crash explained what lead to Austin becoming “the world’s first bionic man”.

Peterson would often say in interviews that he did not enjoy that his crash was shown so frequently on television.

NASA researchers discovered following the crash that the M2-F2 had issues with the lateral control, even with its own stability augmentation control system. The lifting body program continued with a redesignated craft known as M2-F3. The new craft was modified with a third vertical fin placed in the center between the tip fins. This helped improve its control characteristics.

“The lifting body designs influenced the design of the space shuttle and were also reincarnated in the design of the X-38 in the 1990s,” Gibbs said.

The North Dakota native stayed on with NASA until retiring in 1981, the same year the space shuttle first flew into space. Bruce Peterson died in May 2006 following a long illness at his home in Ocean Springs, California.

(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)

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Written by Charles Atkeison

Charles Atkeison

Charles A Atkeison is a long time aerospace journalist having covered both military and civilian aviation, plus 30 space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral. He has produced multimedia aerospace content for CNN, London's Sky News, radio, print, and the web for twenty years. From flying with his father at age 5 to soaring as a VIP recently with the Navy's Blue Angels and USAF Thunderbirds, Charles continues to enjoy all aspects of flight.