IN 1961, AS SPACE FEVER SWEPT AMERICA, A FICTIONAL ASTRONAUT NAMED MIKE MARS MADE HIS FIRST APPEARANCE. OVER THE COURSE OF EIGHT BOOKS, THE MILK-DRINKING AIR FORCE PILOT DOES PRETTY MUCH WHAT YOU MIGHT EXPECT: HE DEFEATS HIS ARCHRIVAL-ANOTHER ASTRONAUT WHO'S ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY-GETS THE BETTER OF THOSE DASTARDLY COMMIES, AND FLIES INTO SPACE AND BACK IN PRETTY MUCH EVERY SPACECRAFT OF THE PERIOD.
Most pieces of hardware in the books, including the Mercury capsule and the Atlas rocket, are well known to history (or at least to then-prepubescent space fans). But the subject of the fifth book, Mike Mars Flies the Dyna-Soar, is a striking exception. Any modern reader would probably assume that, with its swooping hypersonic maneuvers (and its goofy name), the Dyna-Soar must have been pure fiction.
They would be wrong.
Originally conceived by the U.S. Defense Department in 1957 as a manned intercontinental bomber, the "dynamic soaring" aircraft--with its black cylindrical body and delta-shaped wings--was designed to travel at more than five times the speed of sound. The plan was to use a large rocket to blast the Dyna-Soar into space. Then, rather than arcing high above the Earth, like a ballistic missile, it would re-enter the atmosphere quickly and glide to its target, without power, for vast distances; its creators envisioned a range of up to 12,000 miles.
The concept was simple, but its realization proved fiendishly difficult. In 1963, after spending more than $400 million (about $3 billion today), the Pentagon finally decided that the engineering challenges facing the Dyna-Soar were simply too expensive to overcome, and it canceled the project before the vehicle's first test.
But the interest in boost-glide weapons, as they're called, never completely faded. Some 40 years after the Dyna-Soar's demise, the United States reinvigorated its efforts to develop the technology.
By 2003, U.S. military planners had become worried that the country's long-range conventional weapons, such as cruise missiles, might be too slow to reach hypothetical distant targets that needed to be struck urgently. Although the United States has land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, which can travel much faster and can strike any conceivable enemy in 30 minutes or less, they are all nuclear-armed. So the Pentagon launched the Prompt Global Strike initiative to develop conventional weapons that could reach targets anywhere in the world within "minutes or hours." Boost-glide weapons--re-envisioned as unmanned missiles that could destroy many types of targets simply by smacking into them at eye-watering speeds--were an obvious candidate.
The United States has since tested such weapons, but it hasn't actually purchased them. In fact, Washington has not even decided what exactly it would use them for. Although it has already spent an estimated $1 billion on prototypes, the boost-glide weapon remains, as one Pentagon contractor put it, a "missile in search of a mission."
Unfortunately, China and Russia view Washington's interest in the weapons as a done deal. Consequently, both countries have begun their own research and development efforts, potentially sparking a risky new arms race. In his December 2013 annual state-of-the-federation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin railed against U.S. boost-glide development efforts and then boasted of the "advanced weapons" that Russia is developing. The following month, China blasted its first boost-glide missile into the sky. Today, the only Chinese missiles that can reach the continental United States are nuclear-armed, but the use of nuclear weapons would be credible only in the direst of circumstances. Thus, long-range hypersonic conventional weapons could represent a more usable threat--and render the United States vulnerable to a whole new kind of attack.
The irony? With long-range weapons flying around at high speed, a state could interpret an escalating conflict as needing a nuclear blow. …