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Is there any single piece of technology that's more retro-futuristic than the SR-71? It is undefinably iconic especially if you understand what happened behind the scenes. Lockheed's Skunk Works managed to not only look into the future, but they managed to make it manifest in the past.

The first one took flight over fifty years ago and we still talk about it as if they represent the promise of the future. As a culture and community, we rarely view Project Apollo in the same way. To me, in contrast to the Blackbird, our first step outside our cradle looks dated. The Saturn V is an ode to the sheer force of will required to send human beings to another heavenly body. It certainly looks the part. The Blackbirds, on the other hand, were precise, surgical instruments designed to cut borders and they look the part. Every element of the plane ends in that sharp-looking edge. There are no blunt surfaces on it. It’s one complex curve wrapped around itself and stretched into that timeless shape.

And that's before you pull back on the curtain. I don't have online sources for this, but I have read books about the project that explained how every single part within the Blackbirds - from the engines to the paint - was brought into being for this project. They set out to do something so daring and so pioneering that they had to invent new alloys to do it. And then they had to build the machines to work that alloy: new machines - tape-based robots - to precisely carve it into shape, new procedures to put it together, and new philosophies to let it fly. These planes were designed to fly so fast that ordinary Titanium-based alloys would melt or weaken over time leading to rapid, unplanned disassembly. They didn’t have more advanced ceramics which could do the job, so Kelly Johnson’s team came up with a new alloy that was annealed - or re-tempered - in flight, so that it became stronger and stronger over time. Theoretically above some classified altitude the Blackbird can go much faster than Mach 3 and keep on going until the airframe melts away at some crazy high, theoretical speed no one has bothered to check.

They did all of that in a past where the most sophisticated engineering tool in common use was a slide rule and the first scientific pocket calculator was nearly a decade into the future.

Do you ever wonder when we'll build something so daring that it will finally eclipse this project? I do. Paraphrasing Thiel, "what happened to the future? We were promised Blackbirds and got the F-35 instead."




> Paraphrasing Thiel, "what happened to the future? We were promised Blackbirds and got the F-35 instead."

It's kinda weird how the F-35 just looks somehow dated and like a slob compared to e.g. the older (and cooler looking) F-22. Though perhaps "cool looks" is maybe not the prime factor in fighter jet selection...


Kelly Johnson, who led the project to build the Blackbird, disagrees. "All of us had been trained by Kelly Johnson and believed fanatically in his insistence that an airplane that looked beautiful would fly the same way." --- Ben Rich, Skunk Works

This quote opens an essay on beauty by Paul Graham, http://www.paulgraham.com/taste.html


Believe he also had to be convinced by Rich to support the boxy F-117A.


The F-117 was mostly a limitation of computing technologies at the time. We (apparently) didn't have the horsepower to model radar hitting curved surfaces, so the boxy plane came as a result of the limitations of the modelling system.


Function follows form?


They merge at a point. The moment they merge you have achieved Nir... Unix ideal.


> Though perhaps "cool looks" is maybe not the prime factor in fighter jet selection...

The urban legend about why the X-32 lost out to what become the F-35 is it having a stooopid looking mouth on it: https://i.imgur.com/1GW21we.jpg


The x-32 was just happy to be there. Like a big metal basking shark.


Since the selection of the JSF was during the Clinton presidency, the X-32 was often referred to as Monica.


Some mean looking teeth, or a spooky spiral may have changed that.


The F-22 outperforms the F-35 in virtually every aspect. It's possible to stick F-35s 360 thermals on the F-22 too.


It does have some pilots who are real fans of it:

If you were to write down all the ways in which you could measure an airplane—payload, fuel, ordnance, handling—and ask 100 pilots to rank which is the most important, I guarantee you that 100 out of 100 pilots would say “situational awareness.” By far. Not a single pilot in the world would say “turn radius.” Not one. Because the more you know, the more accurately you know it, the better able you are to make a decision.

In situational awareness, the F-35 is superior to all platforms, including the Raptor. I’d never been in an airplane that so effectively and seamlessly integrates information to tell me what’s going on around me—and not just from the radio frequency spectrum, but laser, infrared, electro-optical. That’s usually the first thing people notice when they get in the airplane. They know so much more than they ever knew before.

https://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/f-35-faces-mos...


You can stick every sensor on the F-35 onto the F-22. It would not be difficult to do so. Now, the question of why they haven't, is an interesting one. And part of the answer is that EODAS is not performing as well as promised.


It would be extremely hard to do. The F-22 bus is antiquated, and not really designed for expansion. That's one of the reasons the F-22 still doesn't have an IRTS.


First of all, I can't prove my opinion.

With that said, if push came to shove, the electronics on the F-22 could be quickly replaced/augmented to either have a focused IRST ala the SU-35 or a 360 system like F-35's EODAS. Your argument is in line with "It would be difficult to restart the F-22's production line." Sure, but neither doing that or updating it would cost nearly as much as the amount of money that went into the F-35.

I think IRST wasn't made a priority because the US expects to have AWACS wherever they operate and the F-22s to shoot based on AWACS data without ever actively emitting themselves anyway. That or planes toggling radar one at a time and passing data via datalink to their squadron, which makes them fairly safe (at least that was the idea with datalinks).


Then why are people buying F35s?

EDIT: Thanks everyone, I wasn't aware that the F22 had a higher price and additional export restrictions.


Cost. The F-22 costs $200M+ per plane. The F-35 cost $94M for the small initial production runs, and that's expected to come down as production volumes go up and the program cost (which includes large fixed costs like software and tooling) gets amortized over the production run.

One F-22 vs one F-35 is a contest obviously in favor of the F-22. One F-22 vs. three F-35s becomes a lot more ambiguous, particularly when we are not at war and there's no guarantee that any of these planes will do anything more than force projection.

(The F-35 very much seems like a peacetime fighter to me, and that may be exactly what the U.S. needs right now. History has shown that basically all your assumptions about how the next war will unfold go out the window once the next war actually starts. Under those conditions, it may make more sense to try out a bunch of new technologies, keep the defense contractors alive and the aeronautical engineers employed, contain costs, and build enough numbers that you don't get completely steamrolled in the early days of a war. Then when war actually does break out, you rapidly adjust and build the planes that you actually need, when you have real data about what's winning on the battlefield.)


"History has shown that basically all your assumptions about how the next war will unfold go out the window once the next war actually starts."

Also, don't forget that nuclear weapons still exist. Nuclear powers shooting down squadrons of each others fighters to achieve "victory" does not seem likely.


Controversial opinion here, but I think nukes are going to be an evolutionary dead-end in the history of weaponry. Either they'll end up getting used, in which case "WW4 will be fought with sticks and stones", or more likely they won't end up getting used because everybody knows that's the outcome, and we'll have more conventional proxy wars where everyone just pretends nukes don't exist.

Other controversial opinion: I think that the assumption that the next major war will be between nation-states is a likely candidate for one that'll go out the window. In my view, the next major war will be like Syria but on a global scale, with many semi-organized subnational groups duking it out in exceptionally nasty urban & guerilla warfare.


I thought those were both mainstream opinions.


1. F22's are banned from being sold to anyone but the US.

2. F22's are only fighter jets. F35 for better and worse is designed to do just about everything.


The F-15Es do better in strike roles than planes that weren't supposed to be pure fighters.


The motto of the F-15 when it was initially designed was "not a pound for air to ground."


Sure, but Han shot first.


We sell the F-35 because if it ever came to it, our F-22's would dominate their F-35's they bought from us.

But to be fair, as the other comments have pointed out the F-35 is lower cost, a decent peace time machine and is has flexible configurations.


For the same reason people buy Corollas when Audis are available. Even with all the troubles the F-35 has had, the F-22s still have a substantially higher unit cost.

The F-22 also can't be sold as an export.


Only version available for export, about half the price.


It is supposed to be the cheaper stealth fighter.


You don't need high turn rates when you have Electro-Optical Distributed Aperture System (EODAS) like the F-35's cueing High-Off Bore-Sight (HOBS) short-range air-to-air missiles like the AIM-9X.


From what I've heard, the fact that the X-35 looked cooler than the X-32 was a non trivial component of it being selected in the JSF program.


And why not? With the multitude of ground based missiles fielded today, a considerable part of the role of fighter aircraft is status. Imagine a programme as expensive as the F-35 that resulted in a plane so ugly that you'd want to hide it. It would be objectively worse at projecting power without actually fighting it out even if it had slightly better performance characteristics.


Oh sure, I'm not expressing judgement.

Given a volunteer military, and remembering their advertising in high school, they probably want people to feel as cool as possible joining up too.


That's a damn shame because the X-32 is easily one of the world's cutest airplanes.


Delivering death with a smile.


if "cool looks" was a factor, IMHO the YF-23 is near the top.


Yes, amazing looking aircraft. Never seen more beautiful lethality in an airplane.

I've always thought it was a shame the YF-23 wasn't developed into the role eventually filled by the F-35. It had a lower radar cross-section than the F-22, could supercruise faster, had better range, and with the deletion of the afterburners (not necessary for the revised role, especially when you can truck along at M1.8 without them) it could have opened up a lot of space for additional weapons storage.[0] And it was a long way to being a developed aircraft. Could have been finished much more cheaply than the F-35, no doubt.[1]

[0] Not sure of the CG shift implications, though.

[1] Not sure if those savings would have been eaten up by higher operating costs.


Well, the F-23 was never going to be VSTOL, nor take off a carrier. So it never would have fulfilled the roles of the F-35. It would have been a nice replacement for the F-111 and Strike Eagle however.


I remember an artistic rendering of the A-12 Avenger when I was younger. I thought it was the coolest plane I had ever seen.


"If it looks right, it flies right"

Quote I've heard attributed to WW2 pilots, but google isn't helping me with.


> Do you ever wonder when we'll build something so daring that it will finally eclipse this project?

We can't do that kind of engineering anymore. Computers have made us ... lazy? That's not really the word. With so much computing power at hand, we just don't have the pinpoint focus that it would take to make another SR-71 and not hobble it with over engineering and feature creep. Or even just being able to let go of a nagging problem. For example, a proper sealant couldn't be found to keep the fuel from leaking so they just said whatever and let it leak fuel until it warmed up. Nobody would do that today.


The real problem is that the mission the SR-71 was built for doesn't exist anymore, and nobody else with a need to go that fast has the money to back it up. We could build a successor the SR-71 that would go even faster and further and have fewer weird issues like fuel leaking out constantly, but it would cost a lot more (even inflation adjusted) than the SR-71 did and fulfill a mission that nobody was asking for.

Computers didn't make us lazy, but the Git-R-Done mentality of the old projects got gobbled up by the bureaucracy in all of our big defense contractors/aerospace companies. It's super hard for a Kelly Johnson type to fend off thousands of middle managers all trying to justify their position.


The SR-71 was replaced by satellites.

The F-35 is a giant weird beast because it's massively multi-mission, but really as a backstop to what we can't do with drones, missiles, and satellites.


> The F-35 is a giant weird beast because it's massively multi-mission

No, it's multimission because new airframe types for manned combat aircraft that could meet evolving demands were becoming giant weird beasts and getting exponentially more expensive (something that typically happens with classes of systems as they become unviable) anyway, and doing one airframe for almost every conceivable role was envisioned as a means of containing costs.


Containing costs -> multi mission -> giant weird beast. I don't think we disagree.

Still, I think the point about it being a backstop to unmanned aerial assets stands. I don't know if it needs to be optimized for any single mission when it's likely to be a worse choice than one of those assets.


> doing one airframe for almost every conceivable role was envisioned as a means of containing costs.

Didn't they learn from the Phantom that one airframe for all tasks simply doesn't work ?


No.


> but really as a backstop to what we can't do with drones, missiles, and satellites

...yet?

Will it not be most likely the last manned fighter jet?


Doubt it. If it is remote controlled, you have to deal with latency and are susceptible to jamming and/or hacking and I doubt AI will be good enough for many years to come to be completely reliant on.


> "Is there any single piece of technology that's more retro-futuristic than the SR-71?"

Maybe not more, but up there with it are the Concorde, and the H&K G11.

Also, if you like the SR-71, check out the A-12. The immediate predecessor of the SR-71, very easy to confuse the two, with the notable exception of the A-12 having a single seat. I think that makes it even cooler. Just one pilot, no other aircrew, up there alone with the machine. That's really incredible to me.


+1 on the G11. Any bullpup rifle already looks reto-futuristic; combine it with caseless ammunition, the ability to fire a 3 round burst in 80ms before buffering happens and the 90 degree rotating feeding system, and you've got something that still feels sci-fi today.-


I was not familiar with A-12 and looked it up. Wow.

With the wingtips are folded up, the A-12 looks like something out of Star Wars.

The triangular shape is reminiscent of B-2 Spirit, though these are of course completely different beasts. Both the A-12 and B-2 were designed during roughly the same era, late 1980s. I guess there was some kind of cross-pollination of ideas (maybe via DARPA) for a triangular design to appear like this?


I think you and GP are discussing different A-12's. GP is referring to the Lockheed A-12 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_A-12 and you are referring to the McDonnell-Douglas A-12 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonnell_Douglas_A-12_Avenger...

Don't even bother trying to figure out US military naming schemes.

I suspect that the reason the A-12 and the B-2 looked alike is that there is enough similarity in mission that the best shape ended up that way. (Or as an old friend used to say, "aerodynamics can't lie.")


Aye, the Lockheed A-12. It was apparently the 12th iteration of the CIA's "Archangel" program, hence "A-12."

Knowing the CIA, that designation may have been misdirection too. 'Main battle tanks' are called 'tanks' today because of WWI era misdirection. Instead of calling them "armoured tractors" or something descriptive like that, the British called them "water carriers." The abbreviation of that (w.c.) was considered crude though, so they were renamed "tanks" as in a container for carrying water. This was to ensure any German spy who overheard the wrong conversation would get the wrong impression.


Oh yeah, you are right.

The Lockheed A-12 has a familiar appearance... I always thought it somehow looks like a flying dragrace car. Everything in it screams "fast".

And as for the "wrong" (McDonnell-Douglas) A-12, another thing I found interesting was that some of the modern drone designs also have the same triangular shape. (Like X47-B, X45-C/Phantom Ray, nEUROn, RQ-170)

And the X47-B can even fold its wings!


Talk by the A-12 pilot, Frank Murray. Refers to the SR-71 as the "family model".

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGdxpqqsHl8


I'd throw in the H&K XM25 grenade launcher on the list as well. Wouldn't be out of place in a sci-fi movie.


The SR-71 is amazing in many ways. It can't start it's own engines, they are started one at a time by a huge generator that drives under each wing. Adding to what you said about the skin of the plane, what I heard is that the skin isn't sealed until it's flying... that the SR takes off with a minimal fuel load, because it literally leaks fuel, and then gets refueled immediately. It's no wonder people speculate there was other-worldly inspiration.


Most military aircraft at the time and for a while after could not start themselves. I think everything on the deck when I served on a carrier in the late 80s except maybe s-3s required huffers and electric carts to get going.


The startup of an F-22 using it's jet fuel starter is pretty wild: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUO-D2-OfDQ


Thank you for your service!, and for sharing.. I didn't know that.


Most aircraft, really. That's why jet engine "air start" services are provided at most airfields and airports.


> Theoretically above some classified altitude the Blackbird can go much faster than Mach 3 and keep on going until the airframe melts away at some crazy high, theoretical speed no one has bothered to check.

I'm very skeptical of these rumors. The SR-71 inlets were shaped for a specific range of mach numbers, and wouldn't work beyond that. Significant new engineering would be needed to go well beyond mach 3.5.


Using MagnetoHydroDynamic, you can. You just have to use parietal Engine invented by Jean-Pierre Petit in 1975[1]. With this technology you can fly at Mach 8, easily..

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jn8b3E9oUHY


> With this technology you can fly at Mach 8, easily..

In an SR-71?


Ah, I was mistaken.


Love the SR-71 and recently visited Kelly's gravesite when I found it was in the neighborhood.

However, the economics of never really made sense in regards to its utility. Only during the cold war could such a project be dragged into the realm of possibility.


F-35 is a massive success compared to UAVs. It's the only supersonic aircraft with VTOL capabilities that also simultaneously has stealth capabilities. HN constantly complains about manned fighters being obsolete but Global Hawk et. al. cost more than a F-35 per unit and they can at most only be used against ground targets that don't fire back.


>...ordinary Titanium-based alloys would melt or weaken over time leading to rapid, unplanned disassembly.

That's a rather understated way of saying "She'll fly herself apart!"

I should be working, but your comment was enthralling.


I had the good fortune to hear Bill Weaver (pilot of an SR-71 that underwent a midair unplanned disassembly) tell his story.

http://www.chuckyeager.org/news/sr-71-disintegrated-pilot-fr...

https://theaviationist.com/2015/03/17/sr-71-mid-air-disinteg...


It bothers me to see so many projects overbudget and late, even to do mediocre things like combine a city's disparate accounting systems. Were companies better in the past?


There is a great podcast that covers this question....

http://omegataupodcast.net/181-why-megaprojects-fail-and-wha...


I love reading about skunk works! Any specific books you can recommend?


Well, there is the book called "Skunk Works" written by Ben Rich. It's very good.


I loved the story about the F-117 (the hopeless diamond) in radar testing not showing up on the screen, so the radar operator told someone to go check to see if the model fell off the stand. That guy stuck his head out the door and was about to say "no it's still there" when a bird landed on the model and the radar operator said "Oh, I see it now"


I love this book, the accounts from the pilots (humourous and anxious) are incredible. Growing up I read this multiple times and it never fails to be a great read.

Some of my favorite stories include the fact that you could take off in the morning, fly up to the arctic circle, and back down in time for dinner in the evening.


Agreed - this is an incredible book. Highly recommend it.


More Than My Share Of It All by Kelly Johnson, himself (well, through a ghost writer)


YF-12 development film. Check out the avionics test.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1FLEbAbl4Q


> Do you ever wonder when we'll build something so daring that it will finally eclipse this project?

Maybe we have, and just haven't been told about it.


This was a joy to read, I am getting goosebumps and this feeling running down the spine when we as humans do something extraordinary. Truly extraordinary.


Eh. Weapons of maintenance of American military hegemony aren't exactly my idea of the pinnacle of human ingenuity.

It certainly looks cool though.


Technically, it is. Don’t throw political and philosophical burden and anti-American stance when we are discussing technical achievements.

The parent comment simply talks about engineering challenges and it’s frankly amazing.


I don’t think we will in the US. We are too self hating right now.

There was a story where Trump basically tried to get NASA to try and do a manned mars mission within 10 years. He said he’d offer them an unlimited budget. They said no.

Now, feasibility of any of this aside: that just depresses me more than anything I’d heard in a long while. You won’t even try? C’mon! What happened to “we are doing it not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard”? The mentality that we can do literally anything we put our minds to?

Look at the way that people want to vilify Elon Musk. Here’s a guy that embodies everything I grew believing was the American spirit, and apparently that makes him a bad guy. So sad.


>“But what if I gave you all the money you could ever need to do it?” Trump reportedly asked. “What if we sent NASA’s budget through the roof, but focused entirely on that instead of whatever else you’re doing now. Could it work then?”

"Cancel all your research projects and focus on a rushed, unsafe, mission to Mars within the next four years" isn't an offer I'd take either.

And that's even supposing he has the political power to actually give them the money he was offering. Which he doesn't.


I don’t think I’d take your uncharitable version of the offer either!


Also, many folks don't realize that going to Mars would be much harder than the Moon for multiple reasons. There are several big engineering problems not yet solved and n. Nasa knows this.

There's a Tyson show on it, perhaps still on Netflix if interested.


> Now, feasibility of any of this aside: that just depresses me more than anything I’d heard in a long while. You won’t even try? C’mon! What happened to “we are doing it not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard”? The mentality that we can do literally anything we put our minds to?

They are going to try. Just a month before, Trump himself had signed a bill outlining a manned Mars mission, and the timeline to actually do it.

What they said no to was a spur of the moment request, made without discussing feasibility (or anything else about it) with anyone else before making it, to do it way way way faster than that.

Here's an article with the details [1].

[1] http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/01/trump-offered-nasa-un...


Can you source the Trump story? In the Atlantic [1], it looks like Trump asks NASA if they can do it by the end of his first term with unlimited budget, so that's 4 years instead of 10 years. (10 years is still very short for a manned Mars mission.)

NASA is an enormous entity with many different branches, and each aerospace mission must be planned and funded carefully. Upper management at NASA must also consider the politics of a situation; what would happen to NASA if they agreed to such an offer and failed to deliver results?

This seems like it was a political move by Trump that allowed him to look good by making a risky request. If NASA says "yes" and gets to Mars, Trump wins. If NASA says "yes" and fails to get to Mars, Trump says "I gave the money and you didn't do your part". If NASA says "no", Trump says "I offered them the money but they didn't take it".

[1] - https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/trump-ma...




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