Part II : 1950-1957

8. Suntan



[141] The largest and most extraordinary project for using hydrogen as a fuel was carried out by the Air Force in 1956-1958 in supersecrecy. Very few people are aware of it, even now, yet over a hundred million dollars were spent-perhaps as much as a quarter of a billion dollars. Although the project was cancelled before completion, it led directly to the first rocket engine that flew using hydrogen. The project was code-named Suntan, and even this was kept secret.1 It had all the air of cloak and dagger melodrama and indeed, its principal precursor was just that. Suntan was an effort by the Air Force to develop a hydrogen-fueled airplane with performance superior to the secret spy plane, the U-2.


Suntan had its roots in Air Force interest in very high-altitude flight during the first half of the 1950s. One approach, along conventional lines, was pushed by Maj. John D. Seaberg of the Wright Air Development Center, beginning in late 1952. This involved a modification of the Martin RB-57 and the start of the Bell X-16, although the latter was cancelled in mid-1955. A different approach, sparked by a proposal by Randolph Rae in 1954 to build a glider-like airplane powered by the Rex engine, focused on the potential advantages of using liquid hydrogen. The Air Force interest in hydrogen was supported by Abe Silverstein, associate director of the Lewis laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.


By the end of 1955, the Air Force had in progress a number of research and development activities on the feasibility of using liquid hydrogen in flight. The Garrett Corporation, which bought Rae's patents and formed a Rex division with Rae as chief engineer, was three months into a contract for design studies of Rex engines and had concentrated on the largest and latest, the air-breathing Rex III. Kelly Johnson's Skunk Works at Lockheed Aircraft, past their peak effort in designing and building prototype U-2s for the CIA, was two months into a three-month design study of hydrogen-fueled aircraft for Garrett. United Aircraft (now United Technologies) was in the second quarter of a study of using hydrogen in a conventional turbojet engine, and a competitor, General Electric, was also showing interest in hydrogen. Beech Aircraft and Garrett were investigating liquid hydrogen tanks, insulation, and behavior of hydrogen in storage. The Air Force and NACA agreed that the Lewis laboratory would determine the feasibility of flying an airplane fueled with liquid hydrogen. The Air Force would provide the estimated $1 million needed, as well as lend equipment.


[142] The driving force behind the Air Force's mounting interest In hydrogen was the determination to develop an airplane with performance superior to the U-2. Dissatisfied with its supporting role to the CIA, the Air Force sought not only to take over the operational phase of the U-2 but also to regain the initiative in equipment by developing a second-generation airplane. One prospect was the Rae-Garrett proposal, but that approach did not seem quite the right answer. In late 1955, the time was ripe for a new proposal, and soon one was made by Kelly Johnson. He was immediately seen as the right man with the right idea.