So how many people out there are, like me, a big fan of the
movie Real Genius, which starred
Val Kilmer as a teenaged physics prodigy unknowingly working on a secret
military super-weapon? For all those who raised their hands, do you remember
the opening sequence of the film, where a bunch of shadowy government agents
watch a demonstration film of the super-weapon—a one-man space plane called
Crossbow—using a laser to vaporize a victim from orbit?

Here’s the freaky factoid of the day: Take away the laser,
and that whole scene stopped being science fiction sometime in the late 1950s.
Why? Because the U.S. military was working on a multifunction rocket plane way back
then—well before the civilian space shuttle was on the drawing board or NASA
itself existed.

The United States Air Force launched the X-20 Dyna-Soar
project on Oct. 24, 1957, almost a full year before President Dwight D.
Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which created
NASA. Conceived as a multifunction space plane, the Dyna-Soar (short for Dynamic Soarer) was capable of reaching
the far side of the globe at record speeds and altitudes.

Launched vertically atop a Titan rocket, yet able to
glide-land at any U.S.-controlled air base, such a craft could theoretically
perform surveillance and attack missions against both orbital and surface
threats, effectively making outer space the newest theater of operations in
global conflicts.

Project Dyna-Soar continued for six years, absorbing
competing U.S. military space plane efforts such as Project Robo (an orbital
bomber) and Project Brass Bell (an orbital spy plane), all the while competing
for funding and political backing with NASA’s civilian space efforts. In late
1963, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara declared the winner of that contest by
canceling the Dyna-Soar project, just as construction of the actual spacecraft
had begun.

Many space aficionados still lament that decision. Much of
the Dyna-Soar design was ahead of its time, and certain aspects of the research
that went into the development of the X-20 influenced the design of the
civilian space shuttle.

Yet for all the allure and influence accorded to the X-20
project, even the Dyna-Soar had an ancestor—a visionary World War II spacecraft
concept that paved the way for almost every major military space plane project
since the 1950s.


What World War II spacecraft concept served as the
inspiration and technical ancestor of the United States Air Force’s unrealized
X-20 Dyna-Soar space plane, the latter being in many respects a precursor of
the modern space shuttle?

The German Silbervogel project, conceived by Eugen Sanger
and Irene Bredt, is arguably the granddaddy of all modern space plane designs—and
the unquestioned inspiration for the X-20 Dyna-Soar project. The Silbervogel
(which translates to Silverbird) was
one of several Nazi projects known as Amerika
—long-range aircraft that could complete bombing runs on the
continental United States from Germany.

The Silbervogel design was significant because it combined
rocket technology with conventional lift-body aircraft principles. While the
Silbervogel was neither the first nor only design to combine these two
concepts, it is perhaps the most influential.

Under Sanger and Bredt’s conception, the Silbervogel would
have launched via rocket sled on a monorail track. Once airborne, it would have
fired its own rocket engines to skip across the upper atmosphere, finally
arriving above its target on the other side of the world. Though intended to be
a reusable craft, the Silbervogel was in many ways an unofficial precursor of
contemporary cruise missiles.

When Walter Dornberger, former head of the German army’s
World War II-era rocket program, emigrated to the United States and began work
on America’s military rocket program, he brought knowledge of the Silbervogel with
him. His advocacy of a so-called antipodal
planted the seed for the Dyna-Soar project, and Dornberger himself
was a key part of the Bell Aircraft X-20 design team, ensuring the Silbervogel

While the Dyna-Soar would have launched vertically atop a
conventional multistage rocket—rather than horizontally like the Silbervogel—both
the X-20 and the Silverbird would have used passive glide reentry, a technique
that the space shuttle eventually put into practice. (However, X-20 experiments
suggested that 1960s-era rubber wheels wouldn’t survive reentry heat, so the
Dyna-Soar would have skidded to landings on retractable alloy skis.)

As such, you can follow back from space shuttle to Dyna-Soar
to Silbervogel to trace out a general space plane ancestry—and some high-flying
Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

Once again, this week’s quibble comes from the October 5
edition of Geek Trivia, “Full (moon) circle.”
TechRepublic member Hansenmic
exposed my painful ministrations with the English language.

“The article describes the CEV
as as-yet-built, which implies the
vehicle has been built—to me at least. That should be as-yet-unbuilt, shouldn’t it?”

Yes, it should have been, and I seem to remember writing it
that way, so I’m going to blame this one on fat-fingering the spell checker. In
any case, I do apologize, so keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.