Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Spy Plane Continues to Be Ahead of Its Time

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Spy Plane Continues to Be Ahead of Its Time

Article excerpt

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Thirty-five years ago, government officials acknowledged the existence of a top-secret spy plane so technologically advanced it could fly to the edge of space and cross the continent in an hour flat.

The needle-shaped aircraft was powered by massive jets that propelled it forward at 35 miles a minute. Constructed with imported Russian titanium and painted midnight black, it had a sleek, sinister appearance straight out of science fiction.

By the time the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was retired by the military in 1989 -- briefly flying again between 1995 and 1997 -- it had solidified its place in aviation's pantheon for flying faster and higher than any other plane in history.

Now, scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Dryden Flight Research Center are showcasing the plane's unique abilities in an effort to establish its new reputation: as a high-speed, airborne laboratory.

The plane, which last flew July 15, is in the middle of a four-month, $144,000 test program that could keep it flying indefinitely.

SR-71 project manager Steven Schmidt says NASA is hoping to attract private industry looking to test innovations in a high-speed, high-stress environment.

"By using the unique capabilities of these airplanes we can develop new technologies," said Schmidt. "That could set the standards for aviation well into the next century."

Ten years ago, the U.S. Air Force lent three SR-71s to NASA to be used as experiments and for research.

Since then, the plane has been used to study sonic booms, wireless satellite communications, an ultraviolet video camera, a laser air data collection system, and a new engine for NASA's next generation launch vehicle.

Policy-makers say the SR-71 -- which costs about $36,000 just to fuel up -- reflects a growing trend toward public-private partnerships in aerospace and is symbolic of something larger: changing the relationship between NASA and industry. …

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