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NASA's Iron Man
04.20.04
 
You might have been too distracted to notice.

You may have seen that X-43A scramjet flying by at seven times the speed of sound, but you might have missed the aging workhorse responsible for it all. B52-008, Pegasus booster rocket and X-43A in flight.

The B-52 was the powerhouse that lifted the X-43A into history. The plane's tail number, 008, tells us that we're looking at NASA's B-52B, the oldest B-52 still flying. It first took off on June 11, 1955, and has been carrying out some of the most innovative research in aerospace ever since.

Image to right: The Pegasus booster rocket and X-43A shoot into the sky as B-52 008 cruises underneath. Credit: NASA.

In 1967, before B-52 008 had even reached adolescence, it dropped the X-15 hypersonic research vehicle over southern California in a flight that set the world speed record at 4,520 miles per hour.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, B-52 008 dropped what were known as "lifting bodies," although those who saw them might consider "planes without wings" a more accurate term. These lifting bodies were designed to test the possibility of flying a spacecraft down from orbit, instead of the more traditional method of recovering them from the ocean. The technology was proven over a 12-year period, and eventually applied to a new vehicle known as the Space Shuttle. B52-008 drops a lifting body.
Image to left: The lifting body known as M2-F3 is dropped from B-52 008 above the desert of California. The vehicle is now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Credit: NASA.

Fast forward to April 5, 1990. B-52 008, now well into middle age, cruises high above the Pacific Ocean and launches the world's first Pegasus booster rocket. The Pegasus is designed to launch from midair instead of from the ground. It does so with amazing reliability and success, carrying more than 70 spacecraft into orbit over the next 14 years.

The dynamic duo of B-52 008 and Pegasus reunited on March 27, 2004 to make history. They carried the X-43A to over 95,000 feet and delivered the world's first free flight of a scramjet engine.

Now a senior citizen, B-52 008 doesn't ask for much credit. But its history demands respect.
 
 
Matthew Cavagnaro
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center