The Cold War was absolutely horrible for people, but totally awesome for ideas. Defense budgets were wildly inflated, and so, accordingly, were space budgets. That means designers and engineers could dream big. Bigger, in fact, than any plane has ever flown, anywhere.
Back in the 1970s, NASA was looking for a good follow-on project to the Apollo moon missions. It was rapidly agreed upon that it would attempt the impossible – a reusable space craft.
Everything that humanity had sent to the heavens, up until the Space Shuttle, was invented to go up once, and that was it. Mostly because going into space isn't exactly easy on hardware. First you have the incredibly violent forces that shake and rattle everything to bits, then you have the deep freeze and searing heat of the vacuum, then you have re-entry, then you have to actually land the thing, which entails fitting wings, which aren't as aerodynamic as you'd have wished, and also landing gear, which is heavy, and the landing gear needs suspension, which is also heavy, which needs more fuel, which is heavier still...
You get the point. The list of things you'd need to do, just because you insist on launching your spaceship twice, is enormous.
Oddly enough, you also end up running into problems that most people wouldn't consider. One of those issues is what to do in the event that the Space Shuttle needed to go to an alternate landing site, one different from its launch point in Florida.
"Easy," you would think. "You just find another runway."
And yes, I suppose finding the runway is the easy bit. But then you have to think about what needs to be done once your space ship on the ground, and you have to get it back to that launch point.
You need to fly it on a plane.
Well, first you need to actually get it on the plane.
Well, well, first you need to remember which side goes where.
Space Shuttle jokes aside, it's obvious that NASA eventually decided to stick the craft on a Boeing 747, and besides, this being the day and age of the Internet, you've probably seen and heard plenty about the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft already.
But this isn't about the SCA, this is about a plane that never was. A plane that only existed as the crazed thoughts of some aeronautical engineers.
This is about the Conroy Virtus.
The Space Shuttle orbiter, as produced, had an empty weight of 151,205 pounds, which is heavy. As such, the thinking was that it would need a very large plane.
Indeed, the Boeing 747, and the Soviet/Russian equivalent of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the Antonov An-225, are some of the largest flying vehicles ever built.
The thinking behind the Conroy Virtus then, seems to have just been to design the largest plane humanly possible.
Originally conceived by Jack Conroy, the man behind the oddball Pregnant Guppy and Super Guppy cargo planes, it was to basically just be two regular plane-sized fuselages, joined by a giant 450-foot wing in the middle, with twin booms out back. The Shuttle orbiter was to be carried underneath the wing, from where it could be dropped, if that's what you were feeling like that particular day.
Oh, and when I say "two regular-plane sized fuselages," I don't mean they'd grab a couple of Cessnas and call it a day.
I mean that they would grab the fuselages from the B-52.
Yes, the Conroy Virtus was basically a twin-bomber, mutated freak.
The Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines would also come from the Boeing 747, in the interest of cost savings, though I'm not sure how much anyone would really be saving, when you consider how much development work you'd have to do on every airport the Virtus ever even thought about visiting.
That's because the world, and airports, by extension, simply isn't designed for a plane this large.
Amazingly, NASA took one look at the Conroy Virtus, and instead of saying "holy crap that thing is crazy get it out of here," they actually thought it might work. At first.
A 1/34 scale model was actually tested by NASA in its wind tunnel, before everyone realized how silly the whole thing was.
It was so seriously considered, in fact, that Lockheed thought it was a good idea to offer up a mutant-twin version of its already-enormous C5 Galaxy, as well.
After waking up with what must've been the world's most vicious hangover, NASA finally decided that this whole twin-plane nonsense probably wasn't the best idea.
The idea held on with the Scaled Composites White Knight Two, but not with NASA. They went with a Boeing 747.
Photos credit: NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin