HEDGE: Hypersonic ReEntry Deployable Glider Experiment; Actor-Network Theory Analysis of Cancelled X-20 Dyna-Soar Hypersonic Spaceplane Program

Che, Margaret, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Goyne, Chris, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Laugelli, Benjamin, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

My STS and technical research areas are connected through their roles in investigating the futures of hypersonic flight in their eras and what implications they each have for furthering their respective societal agendas. Hypersonic flight, defined as flight above Mach 5, has been of particular interest to the military powers of the United States, Russia, and China in recent years, and each government has dedicated millions to hypersonic weaponry research. However, the U.S. was developing hypersonic technology as far back as the Cold War; notably, the U.S. Air Force poured $5 billion in modern currency into the eventually cancelled X-20 Dyna-Soar, the nation’s first reusable, manned spaceplane. While my technical work focuses on demonstrating the capability a CubeSat platform to implement a modern sustained hypersonic re-entry experiment, my STS research analyzes the socio-technical factors involved in the failed X-20 Dyna-Soar project. Though my research areas follow different eras of hypersonic technology, its focus can be seen throughout both projects.
My technical project centers around proposing a re-entry glider design with the aim of sustaining hypersonic flight. My capstone group chose to utilize a CubeSat platform to deploy our glider, which will itself launch off the second stage of a rocket system, and various pressure and aerodynamic measurements will be transmitted during its re-entry. Our project culminated in a conceptual design review and will seek funding for future capstone teams to bring our design to fruition and eventual launch. Our design serves dual purposes in demonstrating the feasibility of Cube Satellites in deploying small-scale re-entry vehicles as well as furthering the knowledge available for ongoing hypersonic research.
My STS analysis also focuses on hypersonic technology, though instead through the lens of a cancelled 1950s U.S. Air Force weapons system program: the X-20 Dyna-Soar. Specifically, my research pushes against the existing working understanding of what led to this program’s dissolution; instead, I lean on Michael Callon’s iteration of actor network theory to provide a more holistic alternative study of the case. By determining each of the human and non-human actors involved in the X-20 Dyna-Soar’s management as well as their interconnected power dynamics, I establish external political disconnects and pressures rather than internal logistical timeline issues as the dominating cause for the hypersonic program’s cancellation. The goal of my STS research is to push the understandings of military project agendas and examine their role with respect to their societies.
Working on these projects simultaneously allowed me to further gain insight in both. As the first stage in a hypersonic research project designed to be funded by an outside party, my technical project provided me with a greater understanding of logistical and technical challenges those working on the X-20 Dyna-Soar could have encountered. Additionally, my actor network theory analysis of the X-20 Dyna-Soar helped me better identify and reflect on both the societal and technical importance of my hypersonic glider work. In conclusion, exploring these projects in tandem opened my eyes to hypersonics spacecrafts from various angles and allowed for more holistic approaches to both works.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
hypersonic, CubeSat, actor network theory

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering
Technical Advisor: Christopher Goyne
STS Advisor: Benjamin Laugelli
Technical Team Members: Brendan Angelotti, Samantha Castro, Jonathan Cummins, Desmond DeVille, Michael Fogarty, Jashianette Fournier Jaiman, Ryan Jansen, Emma Jensen, James Parker Johnson, Nicholas Lu, Adam Obedin, Eva Paleo, Cristina Rodriguez, Josh Willoughby

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