An early proposal has emerged that calls for a wedge-shaped aircraft with scramjets to be launched horizontally on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. The aircraft would fly up to Mach 10, using the scramjets and wings to lift it to the upper reaches of the atmosphere where a small payload canister or capsule similar to a rocket's second stage would fire off the back of the aircraft and into orbit. The aircraft would come back and land on a runway by the launch site.
Engineers also contend the system, with its advanced technologies, will benefit the nation's high-tech industry by perfecting technologies that would make more efficient commuter rail systems, better batteries for cars and trucks, and numerous other spinoffs.
"All of these are technology components that have already been developed or studied," NASA's Stan Starr, branch chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Kennedy, said. "We're just proposing to mature these technologies to a useful level, well past the level they've already been taken."
For example, electric tracks catapult rollercoaster riders daily at theme parks. But those tracks call for speeds of a relatively modest 60 mph -- enough to thrill riders, but not nearly fast enough to launch something into space. The launcher would need to reach at least 10 times that speed over the course of two miles in Starr's proposal.
I was sure I had seen a cool animation of this idea somewhere, and then I found it. Take a look at Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol fly the Fireball XL5 into outer space in 1962 thanks to the magic of Supermarionation.
(Fireball X15 in Supermarionation)
And then, I was thinking I had seen it even earlier. Sure enough, take a look at this picture from When Worlds Collide, the classic 1951 sf movie adventure.
I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm betting that Stan Starr was about ten years old when they were playing Fireball XL5 and When World's Collide over and over again on Saturday television...