Boeing Frontiers
September 2003
Volume 02, Issue 05
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools
Historical Perspective

Century of Flight


Saturn V ApolloThe 1960s represented a period of rapid acceleration of technology, thanks in large part to two catalysts: the United States sought a strong, multilayered deterrence to counter the Soviet Union, while President Kennedy in 1961 inspired the nation to go to the moon.

On April 12, 1961, the Russians launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into Earth orbit, initiating an unprecedented American effort not to lose the high ground. Astronaut Alan Shepard followed this first orbital flight a month later with a suborbital flight in a McDonnell-built Mercury spacecraft.

On Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in a Mercury spacecraft. Over the next several years, an inspired U.S. space program proceeded with the McDonnell two-man Gemini, perfecting techniques that incrementally built up on-orbit experience. This effort culminated with the North American Aviation (NAA) Apollo spacecraft, featuring a crew of three. Meanwhile, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and NAA collaborated to develop and produce the mammoth 363-foot Saturn V rocket that eventually propelled Apollo to the moon in 1969.

As the NASA civilian space program pursued its goal of reaching the moon, the military implemented programs to posture the United States against the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, Boeing-developed Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles replaced the liquid-fueled Atlas and Titan ICBMs. The solid-fuel Minuteman missiles were based in underground silos and capable of launch on short notice.

The decade was also a time for maturation, as jet engines evolved into more reliable power plants. Fighters could now operate with confidence, greater thrust-to-weight ratios and better reliability, as shown by the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, which routinely flew at Mach 2.

As additional breakthroughs were achieved, Lockheed developed the Mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft. And in 1964 NAA began testing the XB-70—a heavy bomber capable of operating at Mach 3+ at more than 75,000 feet. From 1959 to 1968 the NAA rocket-powered X-15 flew 199 flights; it still holds the unofficial world record for speed (Mach 6.7) and altitude (354,500 feet).

In commercial aviation, the emerging Douglas DC-9 and Boeing 727 tri-jet took passenger comfort to a new level. The widebody Boeing 747 first flew on Feb. 9, 1969; the “jumbo jet” would prove to have the greatest impact on air travel.

And capitalizing on advances in materials and propulsion, both the Russians and Europeans pursued supersonic passenger aircraft, known as the Supersonic Transport. The Tupolev Tu-144 was the first in the air on Dec. 31, 1968, followed by the joint British-French Concorde SST on March 2, 1969. Boeing won the U.S. SST competition in 1966 and proceeded with development, reaching only the mockup stage. In 1971 Congress canceled the Boeing SST, citing environmental concerns.

The XB-70 was canceled because the mission strategy had shifted to low-altitude penetration of enemy territory. Interestingly enough, today's deep–strike strategy has shifted back to high–altitude and exoatmospheric aircraft concepts.

In 1968, the tooling for the SR-71 Blackbird was ordered destroyed. This miscalculation eventually devastated the program by dramatically increasing operational costs and leaving no production restart capability.

Because the Boeing X-20 Dyna Soar was canceled in 1963, the effort to have a reusable manned space plane before the end of the decade never came to fruition. Another program slated to move ahead in its place was a modified Gemini system, known as the Manned Orbital Lab. The MOL program was also canceled a few years later. Imagine where we would be today if those systems had moved forward.


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