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NASA's New Mothership
NASA's B-52H air-launch aircraft.
  NASA's B-52H air-launch aircraft. NASA photo by Jim Ross.
NASA has a new "mothership" aircraft, a former U.S. Air Force (USAF) B-52H bomber that has been modified into a flight research vehicle launch aircraft.

Now, the bomber-turned mothership joins NASA's other B-52, the famous "NASA 008," in air-launching some of NASA's most advanced aerospace vehicles. NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, working with the USAF, modified the B-52H by first removing the aircraft's classified military systems, then adding flight research gear.

Following the year-long modification process, the B-52H has flown several checkout flights to verify the newly installed systems. These flights, like actual research vehicle flights, are monitored by engineers on the ground in the mission control center at NASA Dryden.

Modifications to transform the airplane include:

  • installation of flight research instrumentation which includes computers, video cameras, electrical power systems, a data recording system, as well as a smoke generation system to aid tracking from the ground.
  • modification of a bomber crew position into a launch panel operator position for the crew member who actually monitors and controls the research vehicle being carried
  • installation of a new pylon to carry and release flight vehicles

NASA's new B-52H mothership with its older B-52B
NASA's new B-52H mothership at the ready, with renowned NASA B-52B 008 poised beside. NASA photo by Tony Landis.

The B-52H can carry a load of 25,000 lbs. on the new pylon, and possible structural additions may increase the final payload weight capability to over 70,000 lbs.

The new pylon is designed as a "one size fits all" pylon that will require only minimal modifications to accommodate different research vehicles. Previous flight vehicle programs have required extensive modifications to existing pylons or even designing and building new ones.

First-up for launch from the newly transformed B-52H is NASA's X-37 Approach and Landing Test Vehicle (ALTV), slated to be dropped from altitudes of up to 40,000 feet. These X-37 ALTV drop tests, scheduled to begin in 2004, are designed to aid in the design and development of the upcoming Orbital Space Plane, NASA's new effort to provide a crew rescue and crew transport capability to and from the International Space Station.

With each new flight test project, such as the X-37, a build-up approach is used. First, a new aerospace vehicle is taken on captive-carry flights with the vehicle remaining tucked under the wing of the B-52. Following successful captive-carry flights, unpowered drop flights begin, as will be the case for the X-37. If later plans call for a vehicle to be flown under it's own power, this sequence would begin following the unpowered flights.

NASA's historic B-52B 008 drops the X-24A lifting body research vehicle.
NASA's historic B-52B 008 drops the X-24A lifting body research vehicle. (NASA photo)

NASA and the USAF have experience with modification of B-52s for this role. In the late 1950's, both organizations modified and used early-model B-52 aircraft as air-launch motherships, including NASA 008, which is still in operation over 40 years later. NASA 008 has participated in some of the most significant projects in aerospace history, and is the oldest B-52 still flying.

By Gray Creech
Public Affairs
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center