May 10 may ring a bell for fans of the 1970s television show The Six Million Dollar Man. On that day in 1967, a NASA research aircraft, the wingless M2-F2 lifting body, crashed in the California desert. A film clip of the crash opened the popular weekly show about the gravely injured fictional pilot, Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors. Thanks to bionic implants, he survived as a cyborg with superhuman strength, speed, and vision, to crusade against injustice.
The M2-F2 research craft looked more like a boat than an aircraft. NASA was experimenting with wingless flight for a more controlled, more heat-resistant reentry from space. A lifting body derives lift from the shape of the fuselage, rounded on the bottom and flatter on top. Instead of wings, it has vertical stabilizer fins to control its attitude.
The aluminum M2-F2 had an XLR-11 rocket engine. It was carried aloft under the wing of a B-52 bomber to 13,716 m (45,000 ft) altitude. The engine then ignited to carry the craft to 18,288-21,336 m (60,000-70,000 ft) for a gliding descent to a landing. These flights demonstrated that a pilot could fly a wingless vehicle back from space to land like an airplane.
There was only one serious accident in 12 years of lifting body flights. On its 16th test flight both the M2-F2 and pilot Bruce Peterson were nearly destroyed as the craft flew out of control and then plowed into the ground at 250 miles per hour, tumbling over and over before coming to rest. Peterson had several surgeries but no bionic implants to repair his facial injuries, fractured skull, and loss of one eye. This accident inspired a novel, made-for-television movies, and the weekly prime-time television program.
The M2-F2 was rebuilt as the M2-F3 with a large third vertical stabilizer between the fins. It flew 27 successful test flights in 1970-1972, many of them the same profile as planned for the space shuttle. This lifting body research helped to demonstrate that landing without power was safe and thus landing engines were not needed on the shuttle. The M2-F3 (the resurrected M2-F2) hangs in Space Hall in the National Air and Space Museum.
Valerie Neal is in her 20th year as the Shuttle-era human spaceflight curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Division.