Spaceships That Never Were: Space Gliders of the 1950s (and there’s an EAGLE comic connection, too)

What might have been? General Dynamics/Astronautics Art, 1958, Booster Breakoff from Glider by John Sentovic. Image from the Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection. Repository: San Diego Air and Space Museum:
What might have been? General Dynamics/Astronautics Art, 1958, Booster Breakoff from Glider by John Sentovic. Image from the Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection. Repository: San Diego Air and Space Museum:

Apple’s For All Mankind SFTV drama might has sparked an uptick in interest in alternate space history, and there are plenty of “What Might Have Been” moments in space exploration you could also draw from, including plans for a “Space Glider”, that never happened.

The designs featured here, by John M. Sentovic, include a visualisation of a “Boost Glider” proposed by Krafft Arnold Ehricke, a German rocket-propulsion engineer and advocate for space colonisation.

Krafft Arnold Ehricke. Image: The Smithsonian
Krafft Arnold Ehricke. Image: The Smithsonian

A contemporary of Wernher von Braun, Ehricke worked as a Research Engineer for the Research and Development Service of the United States Army in the late 1940s. In 1952, he was recruited by Walter Dornberger, another German rocket scientist, and left government service for private industry, moving to Buffalo, New York, to work as a Design Specialist at Bell Aircraft.

In 1955, he worked on Bell’s Orbital Glider project, later known as Bell Rocket Transport. The space glider was part of wider hopes and proposals for a space station in Earth orbit, plans hampered by budget cuts and eventually pushed back in favour of the race to the moon, The manned glider that would be boosted into shallow Earth orbit, and bounce in and out of the top of the atmosphere for part or all of a revolution of the planet, then land like an airplane.

The proposal was rejected by NASA, along with others, in favour of Project Dyna-Soar, inaugurated in November 1957, the Air Force’s plan for a reusable boost-glide weapon system that itself prefigured NASA’s Space Shuttle.

In May 1958, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA established in 1915 had agreed to help with the technical side of the project. NASA continued that support, but Dyna-Saur, also known as the X-20 Project, was abandoned in September 1963, an estimated two one-half years and $373 million away from its first flight.

Pre-entry Glider-Cockpit Interior design by John Sentovic. Image from the Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection. Repository: San Diego Air and Space Museum:
Space "Migrator" Design by John Sentiovic. Repository: San Diego Air and Space Museum
Space “Migrator” Design by John Sentovic. Repository: San Diego Air and Space Museum

Space gliders feature in a number of the illustrations by John M. Sentovic, who was special assistant to Dr. Krafft Ehrike at Convair Astronautics, and was a contributor to Life Magazine; Missile & Rockets Magazine.

He also contributed to an award-winning deck of playing cards “Space Cards developed by the General Dynamics (Convair) Astronautics Art Section, whose artists also included MAD Magazine luminary Jack Davis.

And yes – there is a British comics connection. In 1961, Longacre Press published the Eagle Book of Rockets and Space Travel – written by John WR Taylor and Maurice Allard, utilising Sentovic’s illustrations!

Eagle Book of Rockets and Space Travel

WEB LINKS

•. Astronautix: Krafft Arnold Ehricke Profile | Wikipedia

Krafft Ehricke papers at the Smithsonian | PDF

This collection is composed of Krafft Ehricke’s files including Ehricke’s published and unpublished papers as well as papers and works by others that Ehricke gathered, presumably as reference material.

Astronautix: Bell Rocket Transport

NASA History: Transiting from Air to Space

NASA History: On the Fringes of Space

NASA: The Origins of Centaur

• Dreams of Space – Books and Ephemera: Eagle Book of Rockets and Space Travel

Defense Media Network – X-20 Dyna-Soar Spaceplane Was Decades Ahead of Its Time

The Rise and Fall of Dyna-Saur (PDF- large, takes a while to load)

Astronautix: The First Re-Entry Glider (1960)

Astronautix: Re-Entry Glider-Six Crew (1963)

Popular Mechanics: This Is NASA’s Very First Idea for a Space Station

Before President Kennedy made his famous call in 1961 to land on the Moon by the end of the decade, the lunar surface wasn’t NASA’s intended destination. Instead, NASA had envisioned an Earth-orbiting space station as its first big goal. And while space station ideas can be traced back all the way to the 19th century, NASA’s Atlas Orbital System design of the late 1950s was probably the first technically sound idea based primarily on available technology.

Astronautix: Space Stations

• America’s National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was formed on 3rd March 1915, with a charter to “supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution.” WIth luminaries like Orville Wright as members, the group was on the cutting edge of technology in the early decades of flight, before eventually being absorbed by NASA in 1958.

For All Mankind screens on AppleTV

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The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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1 reply

  1. I served my time in the shipyards on the Tyne as a an engine fitter and then latterly as a hydraulic systems technician. Before leaving the shipyards to undertake an HND in mechanical Engineering. I had always been a space fan from the very early days of Supercar right through to Captain Scarlet and then Star Trek etc. On completing my HND in Mechanical Engineering aged 24 I decided to go along to the RAF recruitment centre with the thought that becoming a jet pilot might just allow me to somehow get into space!! My dreams were crushed when the recruitment officer took one look at my 6’3″ 15.5 stone frame and just said “No chance”! You can fly a helicopter or a transport but too big for a jet! Boooo hooooo! 🙁

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