Typically when the topic of early space flight comes to mind we think back to a rockabilly age in the late fifties and sixties, when the US and USSR were in stalemate and the Beatles were still the hot new band on your transistor radio. However, the concept goes back much further into the interwar lull of the twenties and thirties with German engineers who took to serious discussion on the pros and cons of reusable space vehicles. Due to limits in available technology at the time, their dreams would not be realized until much later.
During the second world war, a German engineer named Eugen M. Sanger proposed a rocket-powered bomber to take off from a rocket sled at Mach 1.5 before accelerating to Mach 10 climbing to the edge of the atmosphere and skipping across to strike targets in New York before returning home. The Luftwaffe never took Sanger up on his project amidst the already costly war effort despite funding a project for a similar craft that would be used as a bomber interceptor that saw some combat deployment.
Just about every plan for reusable orbital vehicles stayed on the back burner for another decade until the Department of Defense (DOD) became interested in a partially reusable vehicle for several tasks such as reconnaissance, and anti-satellite action, and weapon delivery. Even allowing the Airforce in on the action to start designs on several concepts such as rocket launched gliders and single-stage orbit space planes that share more than a passing resemblance to the National Aerospace Plane(NASP) that was to come almost thirty years later.
These combined projects became the laughably named X-20 Dyna-Soar (dynamic soaring) program to work on a manned reusable glider capable of carrying limited payloads; NASA would be roped into this in November 1958. The initial plan for much of this was a delta-winged craft in which a single pilot would reach orbit by way of a Titan II or III rocket before carrying out their mission and reentering the atmosphere for a runway landing.
The Project would get far enough to see wind tunnel tests, dropping a prototype glider from a B52 Bomber and selecting an initial pool of six test pilots in 1961, however, the Gemini project’s greater funding priorities ended the project just two years later in 1963. With Dyna-Soar terminated; the Air Force still chose to pursue smaller projects in material development that would facilitate heat resistant metals and similar systems. Looking back, the project goals for the X-20 program should bear a passing familiarity with a later system that we’re all familiar with; the Space Shuttle would take many of these ideas and use them to develop the familiar black and white airframe we all know.