Image Credit & Copyright: NASA of Apollo 7 from C-135 ALOTS aircraft. All related links below!
Spacecraft are FAST! It takes a speed of 17,500 mph (28,163 km/h) and tons of fuel just to get into low earth orbit (LEO). So of all spacecraft launched (from Earth) who holds the title of the highest speed of all?
FASTEST MANNED GROUND VEHICLES
Let’s start here on Earth just for reference.
Project MX981: On December 10, 1954, USAF flight surgeon Lt. Col. John Stapp rides the Edwards AFB Rocket Sled “Sonic Wind 1” to a speed of 635 mph. (1,017 km/h) before decelerating in 1.4 seconds, enduring 46.2 G’s in the process. His contributions to ejection seats cannot be overstated. Just a fun note; in 1949 at Edwards AFB, Capt. Edward A. Murphy (who worked on the rocket sleds) was heard cursing the technician for wiring a transducer incorrectly saying “If there’s any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.” His project manager kept a list of “Laws” and added “Murphy’s Law” to the list, forever changing the face of superstition. Stapp himself used Murphy’s Law in a press conference some time later.
The world’s fastest “car” is the Thrust SSC rocket car. On October 15, 1997 while in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada it Royal Air Force pilot & mathematician, Andy Green broke the land speed record with an average speed (it must make two passes) of 763 mph (1,228 km/h) which is faster than the 761 mph (1,225 km/h) speed of sound at sea level. The run actually sent a loud sonic boom racing through the desert. The same British team and pilot have created another rocket car named “Bloodhound SSC” and according to their reports they hope to travel to the Hakskeen Pan, South Africa to make a new world record attempt of 1000 mph). Aside from the record breaking attempts they are running the entire program in an attempt to promote STEM. I placed the link to Bloodhound SSC below if you’re interested.
GUNS N’ BULLETS
What about a rifle bullet? There are many factors that go into the speed of a bullet. Handguns typically have larger, more massive “rounds” than say, a rifle bullet so they travel much slower. The length of the barrel, its twist and the weather also affect top speed but some of the fastest rifle bullets ever made can travel at a speed of 3000 mph (4,828 km/h).
FASTEST MANNED JET POWERED AIRCRAFT
How about aircraft? The record holder for the fastest air-breathing piloted aircraft is the SR-71 Blackbird. It was a derivative of the Lockheed Martin, Skunk Works A-12 OXCART “Black Projects” aircraft and later the USAF YF-12. On September 13, 1974 pilots Capt. Harold B. “Buck” Adams and Maj. Williams C. Machorek flew #61-17972 from London to Los Angeles in 3 hours, 47 minutes and 39 seconds. Their flight took them to a speed of Mach 3 and they arrived in Los Angeles almost four hours before they left London. Its fastest official run was on July 26, 1976 when pilots Eldon W. Joersz and Maj. George T. Morgan brought #61-7958 to a speed of 2,193 mph (3,530 km/h) or Mach 3.2. The SR-71 was reported to have reached speeds of Mach 3.5 inadvertently as it is believed that structural integrity would begin to fail at Mach 3.6 outside Beale AFB, California. Today, aviation enthusiasts like myself enjoy “hunting” the SR-71 and its predecessors around the country and world, that’s why I refer to them by their tail numbers. There were 32 built and though none were lost in action there are only 20 left to be found. There are 9 of 15 original A-12’s in existence today but one (#6931) is off limits as its on display at CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia. Below I have listed a link to the locations of all remaining A-12 & SR-71 aircraft.
ALSO; you may be very interested to know that Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is developing the SR-72 which will have a top speed twice that of the SR-71 AND the unmanned hypersonic Falcon HTV-2 (links to those websites below as well).
FASTEST MANNED ROCKET POWERED AIRCRAFT
Ok; were getting really fast now. I think it’s time to transition from air-breathing jets to self-contained rocket power. The fastest piloted aircraft in history is the North American Aviation X-15. On October 3, 1967 Capt. William “Pete” Knight took X-15A-2 ws33 to the fastest speed traveled by a human on Earth; 4,520 mph. ((Mach 6.7)
The project consisted of 3 vehicles, 12 pilots and 199 total flights. The vehicles were carried by B52’s to an altitude of about 8.5 miles and drop launched (air-launched). All 199 flights were carried by the legendary 52-008 (NB-52B) or “Balls 8” and 52-003 (NB-52B) “Balls 3.” 13 flights by eight pilots reached an altitude of 50 mi. (80 km) which broke the USAF boundary of space which qualified them for astronaut status. The 50 mile boundary was determined because it’s at the point where aircraft controls (wings, stabilizers etc.) would no longer function properly. Two of those 13 flights (both by Joe Walker) broke the internationally recognized 62.1 mi. (100 km) “Karman Line.” The Karman Line, named for Theodore von Karman, who discovered that above 100 km you would need to achieve orbital velocity to achieve any further lift.
Today, two of-three X-15’s remain as X-15A-3 (#56-6672) was destroyed on flight 191 which killed pilot Michael Adams. His name was rightfully placed on NASA’s Space Mirror Astronaut Memorial. X-15A-1 (#56-6670) is located in Washington DC at the National Air and Space Museum. X-15A-2 (#56-6671) is located at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton Ohio.
FASTEST MANNED SPACECRAFT
Now we’re going fast enough to leave the Earth. As we stated above, orbital velocity is a screaming speed of 17,500 mph (28,163 km/h) but what about to go further? What speeds did the Project Apollo astronauts encounter in their trips to the Moon and back? According to NASA sources, Apollo 10 holds the record for the farthest humans have ever traveled from home at a distance of 254,110 mi. (408,950 km) but it also holds the record for fastest manned spacecraft or in short, the fastest humans have ever traveled; period. On May 26, 1969 during the return flight from lunar orbit Crew Service Module (CSM) Charlie Brown, Lunar Module (LM) Snoopy along with Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan reached a top speed of 24,791 mph. (39,897 km/h) or 11.08 km/s. That’s just shy of the 25,038.7 mph. (40,295.8 km/h) or 11.2km/s mark of Earth’s escape velocity.
Just a couple fun Apollo 10 facts: Apollo 10 was the only Saturn V launch from Launch Complex-39B (LC-39B) and it’s the only mission in which all three crewmen also flew on later Apollo missions. They were also the first to carry color television camera inside the spacecraft and they were the first to make live color TV broadcasts from space.
FASTEST EARTH LAUNCHED SPACECRAFT
Earth’s escape velocity is one thing but what’s the escape velocity of the Sun? If you wanted to travel “up-hill” and escape from the solar system from Earth you will need to be traveling at 42.1 km/s. That’s a big step up from the 11.08 km/s escape velocity of Earth itself.
On January 19, 2006 the New Horizons spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) in the nose of an Atlas V-551 rocket and shortly after launch became the only spacecraft launched directly into an Earth & solar escape trajectory (hyperbolic) with a speed of 36,373 mph (58,536 km/h) or about 16.3 km/s. So fast in fact, that the three day Apollo trips to the Moon were achieved by New Horizons in just 9 hours! There are, of course, four other spacecraft leaving the solar system as well; Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11. One thing that may jump out at you is the fact that New Horizons is traveling at 16.3 km/s but I just said solar escape trajectory from Earth distance is 42.1 km/s so what gives? Well technically I said Earth & solar escape trajectory, which takes into account the 30 km/s speed of Earth’s orbit and rotation. Once you leave Earth, your speed becomes relative to the Sun. That being said, you will need to leave Earth with a speed of about 12.2 km/s to achieve the goal. New Horizons does this with about 4 km/s to spare. Even still, Jupiter was in the neighborhood so why not take a free boost? The resulting gravitational assist (orbital energy robbery) boosted New Horizons speed an extra 9000 mph (14,000 km/h) to a grand total of 52,200 mph (83,685 km/h).
FASTEST SPACECRAFT/HUMAN MADE OBJECT
Finally we have come to the fastest human made objects ever; the twin Helios space probes (Helios 1 & Helios 2) which were placed in highly elliptical orbits around the Sun and as they flew “down-hill” though closest approach each orbit they reached the mind blowing speed of 157,078 mph (252,792 km/h) or 70 km/s. I believe that Helios 2 was the slightly faster and closer of the two solar orbiters. Their orbits took them closer to the Sun than Mercury. Helios 2 closest approach was on April 17, 1976 where it reached a distance of 26.9 million mi. (43.4 million km) or 0.29 AU. Though long dead, they remain in the Sun’s orbit to this day.
This record will not stand much longer!
NASA’s Juno spacecraft launched on August 5, 2011 from CCAFS SLC-41 in the nose of an Atlas V-551 rocket and is currently scheduled to arrive at Jupiter on October 18, 2016. Upon arrival it will be placed into a polar orbit around the first of the Jovian planets. As Juno falls into Jupiter’s massive gravity well it will reach an incredible speed of 165,000 mph (267,000 km/h) and become the fastest human made object. Juno will also be the furthest space probe to ever use solar power for its primary means of electricity.
Even THIS incredible speed achievement will not last!
Scheduled for launch sometime in 2018, NASA’s Solar Probe Plus will reach the Sun in 2024 and break both the current records of fastest human made object ever made as well as closest object to the Sun. Its closest orbit scheduled for some time in 2025 will take SPP to a mere 3.7 million mi. (5.9 million km) or about 8.5 solar radii and reach speeds of, get this, 450,000 mph (724,205 km/h) or 200 km/s. That’s almost half a million miles per hour or 0.67% of the speed of light! At those speeds you could reach Proxima Centauri in a mere 6,450 years!
Bloodhound SSC Rocket Car: http://www.bloodhoundssc.com/
Locations of A-12’s & SR-71 aircraft: http://www.blackbirds.net/sr71/srloc.html
Locations of A-12 & SR-71 aircraft (MN A-12 has been moved to CIA HQ): http://www.sr-71.org/blackbird/locations.php
Lockheed Martin Skunk Works SR-72: http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/news/features/2013/sr-72.html
Lockheed Martin Skunk Works Falcon HTV-2 (DARPA website): http://www.darpa.mil/Our_Work/TTO/Falcon_HTV-2_Three_Key_Technical_Challenges.aspx
Official FAI Karman Line definition: http://www.fai.org/icare-records/100km-altitude-boundary-for-astronautics
My blog posts pertaining to New Horizons & Pluto (I place all mission links at the bottom of my posts): https://danspace77.com/?s=new+horizons
Juno mission page: http://missionjuno.swri.edu/
Great JPL Juno infographic: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/infographics/infographic.view.php?id=11106
NASA Johns Hopkins Solar Probe Plus: http://solarprobe.jhuapl.edu/
NASA Johns Hopkins Solar Probe Plus fact sheet: http://solarprobe.jhuapl.edu/common/content/SolarProbePlusFactSheet.pdf