From Cape Canaveral, Florida to the International Space Station, space shuttle Atlantis is in orbit for twelve days with a $2 billion science lab designed by the European Space Agency. Atlantis is due to dock with the space station on Saturday, with the offloading of the lab taking place Sunday by operation of the shuttle’s robotic arm. The lab, designed for state-of-the-art research, is about 23 feet long (7 meters) and weighs 12.8 tons.

The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from launch pad 39A at ...

A replacement for the aging shuttle fleet is planned for 2014, if budgetary considerations don’t delay it. When I was a young kid, I remember reading about the Dyna-Soar concept vehicle, precursor to the shuttle design, pictured below. It was in volume nine of my Childcraft encyclopedia set. Volume nine was all about science and especially space exploration.  The X-20 Dyna-Soar (for dynamic soaring) was to be a space plane whose development began in the late 1950’s. Glide tests were planned for 1963, followed by flights with engines reaching potential speeds of Mach 18. Of course, the impetus of the design and research was partly a weapons delivery system as well as an orbital vehicle. Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, participated in the program from 1960-1962.

Artist's impression of the X-20 on landing approach at Edwards Air Force BaseX-20 Dyna-Soar (source: Wikipedia)

Problems encountered revolved around the booster needed to lift it into orbit and whether the US Air Force should have a manned space program, when this was the purpose of NASA. In March 1963, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara cancelled the program. I wonder if this program couldn’t be looked at again. All along, the dream of scientists has been to take off like an ordinary airplane would and fly on into space like a rocket would. This Dyna-Soar concept was originally intended as something of this sort of vehicle, although using rockets rather than a regular jet engine. Maybe it’s just flat out impractical.

Orthographically projected diagram of the X-20.X-20 Diagrams

The Dyna-Soar would have been smaller than the shuttle, designed for one man in front with the cargo bay immediately behind. It didn’t have wheels either, but a retractable sled type of design for landing. If NASA doesn’t replace the shuttle in 2014, it will still have rockets capable of lifting payloads into orbit. The shuttle is an admirable vehicle that I hate to see disappear. For more detailed information, see this link in Wikipedia.