The Air Force Loses a Second Superfast Spaceplane

A second test of the Falcon HTV-2 glider ended in failure

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The Air Force launched and lost the world's fastest plane on a Thursday test flight. Built in partnership with the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the unmanned Falcon HTV-2 glider successfully blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base around 10 a.m. and travelled towards suborbital space aboard a Minotaur 4 rocket

It was supposed to break away and glide back into the atmosphere at a mind-bending speed of about 14,000 miles per hour, 20 times the speed of sound. At that clip, the Falcon could travel from New York to Los Angeles in 12 minutes, or according to DARPA's plans, the glider could deliver a bomb anywhere in the world in less than an hour. Everything was going as planned until DARPA lost contact with the multimillion dollar weapon a scant 36 minutes after take-off. It was a bit of an improvement from the first test of the HTV-2 in April 2010, which ended only nine minutes after take-off. So far, the HTV-2 program has spent around $308 million.

The trend of hyper-futuristic, super expensive weapons project running aground is becoming a bit of a problem for the Air Force. Last month, the entire fleet of brand new F-22 Raptor jets was grounded for the third time in the past year after toxins like anti-freeze and propane started appearing in pilots' blood. About a week later, news emerged that the fleet of F-35s test jets--a trillion dollar project to upgrade the aircraft of the Air Force, Navy and Marines that clocks in as the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program in history--were also grounded. And these are just a couple of the projects that the problematic Air Force has on its radar in the near future.

The Air Force's scientist Mark Maybury is already working on the jet that will replace the F-22 and the F-35. Wired's David Axe reports that the new fighter, codenamed the "F-X," could feature a hybrid-like fuel system that will be more energy efficient and also "allow the new jet to mount lethal lasers, radar-frying microwave beams and high-powered radars capable of slipping malicious code into enemy networks." Axe is not optimistic about this plan:

It’s not clear the Air Force can successfully manage any new fighter development. Leaving aside the issue of catastrophically escalating costs, the most recent jets don’t actually work at the moment.

If there’s a silver lining for Maybury’s electric fighter, it’s this: The total absence of cash, credibility and confidence to back a high-profile, formal program means the early work on the More-Electric Fighter is being done quietly, on the cheap, by the Air Force Research Laboratories--in essence, Maybury’s nerd corps.

"We are out of money, so we have to think," admitted Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Air Force vice chief of staff.

Thinking is good! The ill-fated Falcon hypersonic glider makes for a terrific example of old Air Force habit of spending and then thinking. (This year's Falcon test flight was actually the second failure in a row.) Based on what Breedlove says, though, we should be optimistic about how the Pentagon's new tight-fisted ways could actually lead not only to better technology but also operational technology.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.