NASA's Birthday: Eight Very Odd Planes From Its Past

NASA celebrates its 53rd birthday this week, but it will be a subdued occasion as the space shuttle era ends, top talent leaves and the agency seems adrift.

In its heyday the agency didn't worry about no damn budgets, and as a result it had a hand in developing some very strange planes. Among them (All photos from the great collection of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center):

8. The Oblique-Wing Research Aircraft In the mid-`70s NASA tested this pilotless plane to determine the effectiveness of a movable wing. It ran on a 90-horsepower engine and flew three times.

7. The Helios A solar-powered remotely controlled craft, Helios set world altitude records for propeller planes before it, ummm, crashed in 2003.

6. The Parasev No, not the biplane, although it's nice to see NASA keeping the WWI technology alive. The Parasev was an unmanned glider used to test various wing shapes and materials in the early `60s, in an effort to develop a resuable spacecraft.

5. The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle The machine that almost killed Neil Armstrong. Astronauts called it "the flying bedstead" and it was notoriously difficult to maneuver, but Armstrong said his experience on it was invaluable to landing the Eagle.

Armstrong's close shave:

4. The X-24 Designed to see if pilots could get wingless aircraft back to earth, the X-24 was flown 28 times. The craft was dropped from a mothership like a B-52.

3. The M2-F1 Another design attempt in the effort to build spacecraft pilots could return on a controlled flight to earth. It had a mahogany plywood shell, like all good spaceships.

2. The Rotor Systems Research Aircraft An attempt at a helicopter/plane combo, the RSRA would have been on no one's list of the sexiest aircraft around.

1. The Mini-Sniffer II A cutting-edge take on kitchen-mop technology, the Mini-Swifter -- sorry, it's the Mini-Sniffer, a drone used to check on air pollution in the upper atmosphere. Dryden says it "was also considered for planetary atmospheric sampling flights over Mars," which would have been something, we guess.

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