I’m sure I’m not alone in being fascinated by accidents and mishaps in the history of space flight. Editors spliced footage of one particularly spectacular crash into the opening sequence of the TV show Six Million Dollar Man.
The fictional story was that test pilot Steve Austin was in a crash so horrible that he lost his legs, an arm, and an eye. Military scientists rebuilt him as a cyborg, replacing the biological bits with robotic components. Then, naturally, Steve Austin became a superspy and got to do interesting things, such as romance attractive foreign women, wrestle alligators, and go mano a mano with bigfoot.
The true history is just as amazing, or more so. Shortly after its creation, NASA had interest in “lifting bodies;” aerodynamic body shapes without big wings. One such that made it through the design phases and wind tunnel tests was the Northrop M2-F2.
The M2-F2 had a rocket engine, its only purpose was to provide extra lift during the landing (lifting bodies do not soar, they lose altitude rapidly). The odd craft was launched like the X-15, namely brought to altitude under the wing of a modified B-52.
On May 10, 1967, test pilot Bruce Peterson nearly lost control of the M2-F2 as it plummeted to the lakebed landing strip. He controlled the oscillations after a struggle, but had veered off-course. He narrowly missed an observation helicopter, further distracting him. Because he was off the planned landing strip, he had no precise way of judging altitude, and the lakebed came up to meet him too fast. He fired the landing rockets and began to deploy the landing gear, but too late. He hit the lake bed, slid, and then tumbled. Here is the harrowing footage taken at the time: Archive footage.
If I were to guess, I’d say that no human could survive such a crash. To the contrary, Bruce Peterson broke a bone in his hand and fractured his skull. The cockpit dome ripped off, and he scraped his head on the lakebed as the M2-F2 came to rest upside-down. He lost skin especially on his forehead, and spent 18 months recovering from a series of reconstructive surgeries. A secondary infection from these, cost him the use of his right eye, but he persevered. Peterson piloted many NASA aircraft after his recovery, though he was required to have a copilot, and then worked for NASA and Northrop until his retirement in 1994. He passed away May 1, 2006 at the age of 71.
Bruce was irritated that his crash footage had been incorporated into the “Six Million Dollar Man” TV series introduction, but of course he had no control over the situation. NASA data is automatically put in the public domain upon release [a fact which allows me to include NASA images here without fear of copyright infringement (Parenthetically I have no idea where that alligator fight pic came from, or if it’s really Lee Majors or not, so somebody might tell me to take that one down)].
The TV show intro? Click here.
In perhaps a more apt analogy to the Steve Austin “we can rebuild him” character, the wrecked craft itself was shipped back to Northrop, unkinked, and rebuilt. Its tendency to wallow back and forth was eliminated by adding a central fin. The new craft was dubbed the M2-F3, and it flew missions from 1970 to 1972. It now hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Lessons learned from the lifting body program informed the design of the space shuttle, Mars probes, and future spacecraft that face the daunting prospect of re-entry and landing.