Balls 8: NASA's Workhorse Mothership

NASA

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress has become legendary for its role as a strategic and tactical bomber during its more than 62 years of service. But one B-52 has a place in the record books though it never dropped a bomb in anger. That aircraft was known as Balls 8, a B-52B that served NASA for 45 years and took part in some of the most important research carried out at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket being released from Boeing P2B (NASA)
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Many experimental aircraft are not capable of taking off on their own, and the rocket planes under development following World War II and some of the cutting edge research craft flown today need to be carried aloft by a mothership before being released released to fly under their own power. NACA, the predecessor to NASA, started out using WWII surplus Boeing B-29 and B-50 Superfortress bombers (or the US Navy equivalent, the P2B). These motherships carried the Bell X-1 when it became the first aircraft to break the sound barrier, and the Bell X-2, which flew beyond Mach 3. But when it came time to test the much larger and heavier North American X-15, NASA needed something bigger and more powerful than the piston-powered Boeing bombers. They originally considered using the mammoth Convair B-36 Peacemaker and loading the X-15 into the bomb bay as they had with the X-1 and X-2. But, by 1959, the B-36 was in the process of being retired. NASA needed a plane for the jet age.

Engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center use a 1/20 scale model of the B-52 and X-15 to test the release characteristics of the rocket plane (NASA)
The X-15 slung underneath Balls 8, with a Northrop T-38 Talon chase plane alongside (NASA)

Boeing had been working on their large 8-engine bomber since the late 1940s, and it entered service with the US Air Force in 1955, the same year that North American Aviation received the contract to build the airframe for the X-15. NASA received two B-52s for use in the X-15 program. The first was a B-52A named The High and Mighty One with the Air Force serial number 52-003, the third B-52A to roll off Boeing’s assembly line. But it was the second bomber that would become a legendary member of NASA, a B-52B with the serial number 52-008 (NB-52B in NASA service). Though it was initially known as The Challenger, it soon came to be known by the nickname Balls 8, based on the last three digits of its serial number. Originally built as an RB-52 reconnaissance variant, Balls 8 was only the 10th B-52 to roll off of Boeing’s assembly line.

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Both bombers were fitted with a pylon under the right wing next to the the fuselage that could support a load of 50,000 pounds, easily accommodating the X-15, which weighed about 34,000 pounds fully loaded. A large notch was cut out of the bomber’s inboard flap to make room for the X-15's tail, and a 1,500 gallon liquid oxygen tank was placed in the bomb bay to top off the X-15 prior to launch. A launch panel was also placed in the B-52's upper deck to control the drop. Balls 8 first took the X-15 aloft on January 23, 1960, and eventually took part in 159 of the 199 missions flown by the experimental rocket plane. And Balls 8 was there for the X-15's world record breaking flights. In 1963, pilot Joseph Walker took the X-15 to its highest altitude, 67 miles, and pilot William “Pete” Knight took the X-15 to a top speed of 3,856 mph in 1967. Eight pilots earned their astronaut wings for exceeding an altitude of 50 miles.

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Research pilot Bill Dana watches as Balls 8 performs a flyover after a successful test of the HL-10 lifting body (NASA)

The High and Mighty One was retired in 1969 and is now on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona, but Balls 8 soldiered on, and took part in a host of NASA research missions. From 1966-1975, Balls 8 was the mothership for 127 of the 144 flights made by the lifting body aircraft which proved the viability of wingless aircraft that could land after reentering the Earth’s atmosphere from space. During the Space Shuttle program, Balls 8 took part in the testing and development of the parachute systems for the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, as well as drag chute tests for a system to slow the orbiter down when it landed on shorter runways. Balls 8 also carried the Rockwell HiMAT (Highly Maneuverable Aircraft Technology) research aircraft, served as the air launch platform for the first six commercially developed Pegasus rocket boosters, and carried the NASA X-38 crew return vehicle (CRV) aloft for landing tests. Balls 8 ended her career as the mothership for the NASA X-43 Hyper X, a scramjet aircraft that reached a top speed of Mach 9.6.

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Balls 8 drops the NASA X-38 over the Dryden Flight Research Center in California. Note the mission markings on the fuselage, listing every test flight going back to the X-15 (NASA)
Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster Drop Test Vehicle (SRB-DTV) released from Balls 8 (NASA)
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The NASA X-43 mounted to a modified Pegasus rocket and carried aloft by Balls 8 (NASA)

Though Balls 8 was one of the earliest B-52s produced, and ended up having the longest service life of any of B-52, it also had the fewest flight hours of any B-52 ever built. Upon its retirement, it was the only B-52 still flying that wasn’t an H model. Nevertheless, the time came for it be retired, and Balls 8 took its final flight on November 16, 2004 and was formally retired on December 17, 2004. It was officially transferred back to the US Air Force, and now rests in a place of honor near the north gate of Edwards Air Force Base. With the retirement of Balls 8, NASA needed a replacement.

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NASA’s new B-52H, with Balls 8 in the background, prior to the B-52H’s return to the US Air Force (NASA)

In 2001, three years before Balls 8 was put out to pasture, NASA received a much more modern B-52H from the Air Force’s 23rd Bomber Squadron. Painted in NASA’s white livery, the new mothership was slated to pick up where Balls 8 had left off. However, NASA’s priorities, and budget, soon shifted from aeronautical research to space programs, and the big mothership no longer had a role to play. Without the funds to support the B-52H, it was returned to the Air Force in 2008.

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It is very possible that the mighty B-52 will have a service life of 100 years, an astonishing achievement for an aircraft that first flew in the 1950s, and NASA may yet again fly the big mothership. But for now, the legacy rests with Balls 8, as it sits quietly in retirement, basking in the warm California sun.


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