Way to the Moon... Before the United States had a space agency, the Air Force
Way to the Moon... Before the United States had a space agency, the Air Force was researching how to send men to the Moon. Beginning in 1958 after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the USAF Air Research Development Command initiated a series of Industry-Air Force studies to examine the military potential of space operations including this lunar goal. The resulting program was an audacious, four stage program to land men on the Moon by 1965. Scaled back and named for the original first stage, Man in Space Soonest, the Air Force’s program was passed over in favor of NASA’s civilian program, Project Mercury. But not launching America’s first manned spaceflight program didn’t deter the Air Force from participating in space. Four days after President Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 call for the nation to land a man on the Moon and bring him safely back to Earth within the decade, the Air Force offered to complete this goal by 1967 for just $7.5 billion with its own lunar expedition plan called LUNEX. The next step after this initial landing was to establish a permanent base on the lunar surface. It was, as Commander of the Space Systems Division of the Air Force Systems Command Major General Osmond J. Ritland wrote in the proposal’s forward, a way to give the national space program a much needed goal. LUNEX was the culmination of years of work; previous mission proposals from Air Force industry teams had been honed into this most economical, reliable, and feasible program. And the benefits went beyond a manned lunar landing. LUNEX promised to showcase American technological superiority over the Soviet Union in the short term, and in the long term expected to develop the hardware and proficiency that would secure America’s role as a leader among spacefaring nations for decades to come. It would also score a major coup for the country, capturing the world’s imagination with an historic feat. But the rationale behind LUNEX went further. The program was presented as a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union. Air Force intelligence suspected that the Soviets, having launched the first satellite, first biological payload, and first manned orbital mission, were likely to continue developing technology with an eye towards securing more firsts. Particularly in unmanned reconnaissance missions. The LUNEX proposal sought to get men to the Moon before the roving laboratories and tankettes the Air Force expected the Soviet Union to launch before long. And of course, another strong motivating factor behind LUNEX was to increase the US’ military involvement in space. Knowing that the Soviets didn’t separate its military and civilian payloads, establishing an American military presence in space would leave the country poised to respond to future hostile satellites or missions. Like the bulk of the manned spaceflight proposals that appeared in the wake of Sputnik, LUNEX took a brute force approach to the goal of landing men on the Moon. The mission followed a simple, direct ascent profile. A three-stage rocket would launch a manned spacecraft directly to the Moon where it would make a soft landing on the surface. After a brief sojourn exploring the immediate area, the crew would launch in that same spacecraft and fly directly back to Earth. A mockup of Boeing's Dyna-Soar. Boeing: At the heart of the Lunex payload was the Earth return vehicle. This core module of the spacecraft, housing the guidance, navigation, and environmental systems to get to the crew to the Moon and back in the comfort of a shirtsleeves environment, was also fitted with the necessary thermal protection systems to return unscathed through the Earth’s atmosphere. Reminiscent of the Air Force’s own Dyna-Soar, it was a lifting reentry vehicle: vaguely triangular with a flat bottom and stubby wings to generate lift. It would launch vertically atop the three-stage rocket then use the same kind of responsive controls as an aircraft to land like an unpowered airplane on a preselected runway at an Air Force Base. This Earth return vehicle would begin its trip to the Moon atop a lunar launching stage and a lunar landing stage; fully stacked, this was a 134,000 pound payload. Using a lunar horizon scanner, a doppler altimeter, and a terminal guidance program relying on pre-placed beacons, the lunar landing stage was designed to set this full payload down at less than 20 feet per second. It’s job done, it would stay on the Moon. It was the lunar launch stage’s job to propel the Earth return vehicle from the lunar surface and set the crew on course back home. This stage would be jettisoned before reentry, leaving the lifting body alone as the returning payload.