Bruce A. Peterson, a NASA test pilot who flew the wingless "lifting body" vehicles that led to the development of the space shuttles, has died. He was 72. Peterson died Monday in Laguna Niguel after a lengthy illness, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center said in a statement Tuesday. The specific cause was not disclosed.
Lifting bodies, conceived in the 1950s, were highly unusual wingless aircraft that derived aerodynamic lift from their shape, unlike conventional planes that get their lift from wings. Starting in the early 1960s, a series of lifting bodies were tested at Edwards Air Force Base, in the Mojave Desert , where Dryden is located.
The prototype was the M2-F1, known as the "flying bathtub," which Peterson flew 42 times on glide flights. He then piloted its successors, the M2-F2 and the HL-10, which were heavier and powered by rockets.
On Dec. 22, 1966 , he came close to disaster on the first flight of the HL-10 when a problem involving airflow across control surfaces made it almost unflyable, but he still managed to land it safely, NASA said. Data from the flight allowed the HL-10 to be successfully modified.
Disaster did strike on May 10, 1967 , when Peterson was flying the M2-F2 and it rolled violently. Peterson regained control but the craft hit Edwards' dry lakebed at an estimated 250 mph (402 kph) before the landing gear fully deployed. The M2-F2 tumbled across the ground before ending up on its back with the badly injured Peterson inside. He recovered from the crash injuries, but lost sight in one eye due to a secondary infection while hospitalized, reports the AP.
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