What it was: A conceptual design for a manned satellite interceptor/killer, floated by General Dynamics in 1963.
Details: The B-70 bomber was conceived to fly high enough and fast enough that it could out-run any possible intercepting aircraft, but before the program was well underway it became clear that surface-to-air missiles posed a problem, and that the USSR was good at building them. In December 1959 the USAF decided to build only one prototype (two were eventually built) for experimental purposes and that was that for the B-70.
There was a short interval before cancellation where the USAF explored putting anti-missile missiles on board the B-70, under the unusual code name of Pye Wacket (probably taken from Kim Novak’s feline familiar in the 1958 supernatural comedy Bell, Book, and Candle). The B-70 flew at such great heights and speeds that making a conventionally shaped missile that could attack on any vector away from the craft proved to be problematic. The Pomona Division of General Dynamics assigned to the project instead settled on a lens shape for the body of the missile, which would make it more maneuverable than the conventional “long-and-thin” approach.
When the B-70 was cancelled so was the missile project, but here the story of the MASS begins. Lenticular shapes were one of the three early contenders for manned spacecraft in the early American space program (along with ballistic capsules and winged re-entry vehicles) and Pomona Division got the idea to scale up the Pye Wacket body into something an astronaut could ride. This was written up and proposed to the USAF in March of 1961.
There’s not a lot of public information about Pye Wacket, given that it was developed as a defense for a cutting edge nuclear bomber, and the larger manned, version was classified too: it seems to have been a dark horse running for the role proposed for the X-20. Much of what we know about the craft comes from a single unclassified paper called “Manned Anti-Satellite System” (MASS), published in October 1963, presumably because it had been definitively ruled out by then. The X-20 itself was cancelled outright in December of the same year.
What General Dynamics proposed was a boost-glide craft, perched atop a Titan IIIC for the climb to orbit. It consisted of a 16-foot in diameter (4.9 metres), 8500-pound (3855 kilograms) lens-shaped command module, which seated three, and a 6200-pound (2812 kilograms) mission module, the latter of which would store a little over 7 US tons (6500 kilograms) of propellant—N2O4 paired with 50/50 hydrazine and UDMH.
The most interesting part of the mission module was its “inspector/killer” modules, four of which studded the sides of the orbiting vehicle. These were protected during launch by “wind shields” or, in modern parlance, payload fairings. Once in orbit the fairings would be dropped and the craft as a whole maneuvered into proximity of a target Soviet satellite. At a standoff distance of 50 miles (80 kilometers), the crew would order one of the inspector/killers to detach and then it would close with the target using its two restartable engines.
Each inspector/killer would be 47″ x 38″ x 38″ (about 1.1 cubic meters) when folded up, but once detached it would unfold a two-foot antenna so that it could send a video signal back to the command module, as well powering up a tracking radar with two antennas (one to lock on the target and one to lock on the command module), a TV camera, a flood lamp (in case the target was in the Earth’s shadow) and an IR detector.
After inspecting the target, the crew of the MASS then had the option of detonating the shaped charge aboard the inspector/killer so as to destroy the target. As well as its two rocket engines, the I/K was outfitted with six attitude control motors, and using all of these it could even chase after a target that was designed to evade an attack; the I/K’s main motors could push it at 12g if needed.
With up to four satellites destroyed, and potentially more inspected depending on how the targets’ orbits were arrayed, the command module would disengage from the mission module and return to Earth. Its lenticular shape allowed for a very high angle of attack (60 to 75º) to bring its ablative heat shield into play while still giving it a good lift-to-drag ration (∼2 as compared to the 1.0 of the Shuttle Orbiter). Once it was down to transonic velocity it would deploy two horizontal stabilizers/small wings, which were necessary due to the craft’s instability at these speeds as well; they also improved the command module’s L/D ratio considerably.
What happened to make it fail: The MASS is a perfect storm of ideas that seemed promising in 1960 but that turned out to be dead-ends. Lenticular craft have never promised enough advantages to be built, the proposed customer—the USAF—never did get its own manned space program, and its proposed mission to intercept, inspect, and potentially destroy satellites has never been worthwhile in practice. In the X-20, it was also up against a strong competitor that had already got underway when MASS was proposed.
What was necessary for it to succeed: It’s awfully hard to get this one to fly. Perhaps if Eisenhower hadn’t been so insistent on giving space to a civilian agency, and if the USAF had been able to fend off the Army to gain it for themselves (far from a foregone conclusion even in the absence of NASA), MASS might have moved further. Even under those circumstances we would have been much likelier to see something like the X-20 or the Manned Orbiting Laboratory rather than the MASS.
When it comes down to it, this proposal placed bets on too many things that, in retrospect, never worked out. It’s interesting as a concrete example of how much we didn’t know in the early 1960s but, with the exception of the Project Horizon Lunar Base, it’s the least likely of all the post-Sputnik projects we’ve examined.
On the other hand…for those of you who (like the author) enjoy stories about conspiracy theories, black projects, UFOs, and the like without actually giving them any credence, I’ll direct you to a strange Pye Wacket-related article published in Popular Mechanics’ November 2000 issue. It makes the case that the MASS wasn’t cancelled but instead went black and turned into a vehicle called the LRV. Fair warning, though: the words “Roswell”, “Nazi”, and “flying saucer” are used in all seriousness.
“Manned Anti-Satelllite System”, E.E. Honeywell; Transactions of the Eighth Symposium on Ballistic Missile and Space Technology (Vol. II); Defense Documentation Center, Alexandria, Virginia; 1963.
“Pye Wacket”, Mark Wade, http://www.astronautix.com/p/pyewacket.html.