Military Surplus, Spaceheads

Return of the Starfighters

The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was an interceptor aircraft built starting in the 1950s. It had a relatively short life in the US arsenal, being retired in 1975, but remained in use by foreign militaries until 2004. NASA flew their F-104s as chase planes and for research until the 1990s. Most F-104s in the US have been long relegated to sitting on sticks in front of Air Force bases or on static display in museums.

Until now.

A company called Starfighters Inc. has signed an agreement to be based at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. They have three CF-104s, which originated in the Canadian military then went to Norway to serve in that country’s air forces.

Starfighters Inc. is a new type of entrepreneurial venture spawned by NASA’s recent change in direction. Starfighters Inc., which previously used their Starfighters for air shows or other more terrestrian endeavours, now sees an opportunity to use the special capabilities of these awesome planes (Mach 2.2, maximum altitude in excess of 60,000 ft., and an ability to carry very small payloads) for flight research and nanosatellite delivery. They are going to fill a hole that NASA is leaving in its research and low earth orbit capabilities once the space shuttle fleet is retired.

Personally, I have no problem with this. NASA should be looking beyond the regions of space that have already been explored. The thing they do very well, better than most, is exploration. Delivering satellites and people within low earth orbit is not a good use of NASA’s limited resources. Not when private companies like SpaceX and Starfighters Inc. are willing to fill that role.

Oh, and if you have the cash, they’ll give you a ride.

Image Credit: NASA

  • Deartháir

    I've always wondered about things like that; the Starfighter's 60,000 foot ceiling, and the U2's 70,000-foot ceiling put them on the edge of space. At that point, I've wondered why they couldn't take a small payload on, say, a missile, that could be then launched into orbit by computer control. With the lower resistance in the atmosphere up there, it wouldn't seem to be a task that couldn't be overcome with some care. I don't know the logistics in any way, shape or form, so I'd love it if some of our pet nerds here could enlighten me about the difficulties.

    • Deartháir
      • P161911

        Still, I would think the first 20 miles or so would take about as much if not more energy as the next 200 miles. Considering the drag of the atmosphere and effect of gravity at lower altitudes.

        The ability to get something to 345 miles or so up launched from a jet fighter plane has been demonstrated. It is just a matter of payload.

      • dmilligan

        Yeah, looking at that, 60,000 feet isn't didley. Still, there are lots of things that need or have to be done in the altitude range available to a jet using a missile engine to boost its payload. I see in the comment from P161911 that missiles can loft stuff to around 340+ miles. Cool. I love to see older warplanes getting reactivated to do useful things, other than being a drone for target practice.

    • The F-104 doesn't have much of a payload capacity, but that's exactly what this outfit is hoping to do. With a nanosatellite on a rocket, they can fly up to 60,000 ft. (or beyond, there seems to be some chatter that the F-104 is capable of higher) then launch it from there into a low earth orbit. I doubt you'll see large communication or weather or "weather" satellites launched this way, but small research satellites could very easily be launched like this.

  • dmilligan

    Let's reactivate some SR-71s to do some of this work. They fly higher and lots faster, and I'm sure they have a greater payload capacity than the F104s. Those old spy cameras they hauled around were BIG. We know they can fire missiles too, as per the YF-12A. Put my Blackbirds back to work.

  • aastrovan

    Another example of old technology that is still relevant.

    • P161911

      Yeah, I went and read the wiki article on the F-104. Seems it was the first and pretty much only fighter designed solely for high altitude supersonic dogfighting. No ground attack to speak of, missiles were sort of an after thought, not real great at slow speeds or low altitude. But apparently still pretty much state of the art for what it was designed for. The leading edge of the wing was only about 1/64" (< 0.5mm) thick for goodness sakes!

      • Number_Six

        They had to put covers on the edges of the wings to prevent groundcrews from splitting their skulls.

        In addition to being awesome-looking, Starfighters also make a terrifying howling noise when they fly overhead. Such a wicked aircraft.

        • Deartháir

          They are pretty bloody gorgeous, aren't they?

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            They are, I made mostly car model kits as a kid, i only ever made two planes, one was a starfighter the other a blackbird.

  • Alff


  • thomasmac

    Interesting timing for this!

    Personally I love the starfighter and have a large plastic model hanging from my ceiling!