There was a time when NASA hoped to make space travel widely available with a fleet of orbital space planes. The OSP, as it was called, would be hurled into orbit atop of a rocket and would later land at an airport like a commercial airliner. Thousands of civilians would thus be given a new and exciting way to lose their luggage.
I hope NASA will excuse me while I yawn. Why am I so unimpressed? It's just that I personally developed (and successfully flew) exactly such a vehicle several decades ago, when I was but 12. At an age when most boys are busily expanding their repertoire of armpit noises, I was bitten by the aerospace engineering bug.
I hate to brag, but my model XB-57 rocket plane was light years ahead of its time. (The X stood for experimental and B was for boy-plane and 57 was just a number that I liked.) Even the manufacturing process was revolutionary. I was able to assemble the XB-57 in less than an hour using totally off the shelf components.
Once the XB-57 was completed, I proudly showed it to my sister, Di. I explained to her that it was the newest and finest product of our nation's aerospace industry.
"Funny," she said sarcastically. "It looks a lot like a balsa airplane with a couple of leftover Fourth of July skyrockets glued to its wings."
I had to admit that to the untrained eye, what she said was true. But to an aeronautical engineer, what I held in my hands was nothing less than pure genius. The clean lines, the light weight, the expendable rocket engines - genius. Besides, what would a dairy farm girl know about aerodynamics?
I told Di that I was giving her a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness history by assisting with the launch. She agreed only after I promised that she could put in the 911 call in the event of a catastrophic launch explosion.
The launch cycle itself was rather complicated. The plan was to energize the XB-57's rubber band motor by rotating its propeller backwards. I would hold the space plane over my shoulder and give the command to ignite the solid rocket engines. Di would light the fuses and I would quickly toss the XB-57 heavenward, giving it some critical initial momentum.
If everything went as planned, the prop would loft the XB-57 to an unspecified altitude. The solid rocket boosters would then ignite. Speed would increase dramatically and the space plane would achieve orbit in a matter of seconds.
For safety purposes, (my parents would kill me if they knew what I was up to) we walked out to a nearby hay field to conduct the maiden flight of the XB-57. There were several tense moments when an argument broke out among the launch crew over the proper order in which to light the solid rocket boosters.
At last, the countdown began; the moment of truth had arrived. At the proper moment, I flung the space plane skyward with all my might.
Miraculously, everything went more or less as planned. The plane clawed its way upward, slowly gaining precious altitude. Just when the rubber band engine ran out of oomph, first one then the other solid rocket engine roared to life.
The XB-57 rose swiftly on a wisp of smoke and was soon out of sight. Di and I whooped and danced as we celebrated our stupendous achievement.
The next day I wrote a scholarly letter to NASA that detailed my ground-breaking accomplishment. I recommended that they stock up on balsa wood. I also warned them of a certain object that was orbiting the earth at an unknown altitude and trajectory.
They never replied. I guess they were too busy at the time what with a project they called Apollo 11, some piffling little thing about putting a man on the moon. Thanks to a fluke of bad timing, my report was probably lost in the shuffle. But if NASA ever wants to come crawling back, I'm willing to let bygones be bygones.
And what of the XB-57? Later that summer, I stumbled across its charred carcass while raking alfalfa. I picked it up and ran back to the farmstead to show Di.
"Look!" I said excitedly, "My rocket plane survived reentry! And it landed right in our hay field."
Di made a skeptical remark about the odds of such an occurrence. I told her there was no luck involved, that you simply had to calculate the correct perihelion.
"You know what I think?" she said, "I think you watch too much of that NASA stuff on TV."
Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, S.D. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry's great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: