Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
NASA trots out its best research projects across the past 40 years, showing us in three docus how
a number of experimental flight and space projects grew out of one another, and presenting in
detail a number of concepts and theories used in cutting-edge aeronautics.
Flights of Discovery: A rocket engine for a proposed replacement for the Space
Shuttle called the X-33, is tried out on an SR-71 Blackbird jet plane. The new engine is called a
Linear Aerospike, an efficient design that doesn't use gimbals to steer. The X-38 is another 'lifting
body' vehicle, a glider to be used as an orbital lifeboat on the space platform. The discussion leads
to an extended look at the old X-15 program from the 1960s, and the original lifting body tests.
The Need for Speed: The problems of ultra-high speed flight are examined, at research centers
that probe the practicality of engineering theories. One X-30 space plane was abandoned in the
1970's, but a space plane called the Hyper-X is at present working on a new kind of airbreathing
jet engine that may reach unprecedented speeds. The original 1947 breaking of the sound barrier is
examined, and the progress of jet progress charted through the fighter planes to the XR-71. The
New Frontier looks at the development of futuristic computer technology that can control and even
land aircraft automatically. Manual controls gave way to vulnerable hydraulic systems that require
stringent design limits to maintain stable, controllable airframes. With electronic,
computer-controlled controls, as developed for the moon rockets, aircraft design has been liberated.
Testing with these new systems brought up the issue of pilot control interfering with computer control, creating
weird overcontrol patterns called 'pilot induced ocillation'. Now, the most modern fighters use
digital-only 'fly by wire' controls. The forward-wingswept X-29 also incorporates exotic composite
materials into its airframe, making it even more revolutionary. Finally, the feasibility of using
computers to steer, fly and land airplanes that have lost their conventional controls is proven by
research to be a practical future backup system.
Using interviews with NASA spokesmen, engineers, and test pilots, the genesis and development of a
number of little-publicized space-related flight vehicles and technologies is chronicled in these
three lengthy documentaries. There's a lot to be learned here, and there's a lot of good footage, all
of it free of
TV-doc hype. "If that retro rocket fires one second too late, he'll be burned alive!", I
remember one ratings-hungry show repeating several times. Here we get good facts about the projects,
see real-deal, on-the-spot vintage footage, and are given good arguments in favor of the pure
research that made them possible. The actual main title on the shows reads: Test Flights:
Beyond the Limits.
The people-connection is stressed, and not just in the risks taken by test pilots. They talk more like
engineers (which many of them are) and one
husband-wife team take turns flying the planes and manning the telemetry on the ground. There's
one obvious NASA spokesman who keeps showing up to smooth rough edges and make sure the agency is
shown in the best light, but he's one of the directors of the test
facility, and seems very sincere. Two of the test pilots briefly interviewed are the real Chuck
Yeager and Scott Crossfield, who were immortalized in The Right Stuff.
There's a do-it-yourself flavor to some of the proceedings, as when the engineers worked unofficial
weekends to put together a prototype lifting body re-entry craft. Made of wood, it proved that the
idea of an airplane without wings works, and got the futuristic ships onto the test schedule. Another
scientist was obsessed with a harrowing Sioux City airliner crash, where the pilot brilliantly
guided a plane with no working control surfaces, solely by manipulating the engines. Modeling
with computers, simulators, and finally using real test planes, they developed a prototype on-board computer
that may someday be used on airliners, giving pilots a chance to land if they lose normal hydraulic
There's a nice through-line of research going back to the original X-1 and X-15 tests to show the
origins of ideas, and how research used in one program sometimes finds expression in another.
A computer system in a test airplane, for instance, was installed directly into the Space Shuttle
when it was determined that it fit the bill.
The shows are more than a little repetititve at times, and issues aren't always tightly organized.
This won't mean a fig to those interested in the topic, who should be very pleased. The production
appears to have come at least partially from 'inside' NASA, and the authoritative point of view is a big
Image's DVD of Without Limits: Nasa Test Projects is a good to very good disc, technically.
The old video and film are nicely transferred. The graphics and effects are unstylish but
efficient. The extras (beyond the three very weighty
docus) turn out to be seven aerospace short subjects promoting and explaining new programs, like
the X-33 engine, and a commercial space plane called Venturestar. A couple of the promos are rather
low-res. There's also a still gallery, and a DVD-rom feature with 'a variety of fun and educational
resource tools' from NASA - glider kits, biographies, poster art, and aeronautic facts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Without Limits: Nasa Test Projects rates:
Supplements: NASA Promo pieces, still gallery, DVD-Rom resource tools
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 27, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson