nasa nb 52 b balls 8  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Image: NASA, public domain)

If you’re familiar with those inspired aviation images depicting X-Planes launched from beneath the wing of a Boeing B-52 bomber, chances are that “mothership” was NASA NB-52B, tail number 52-008, known to pilots as Balls 8.  After almost 50 years of dedicated service to research and development, ending in 2004, Balls 8 is now preserved at Edwards Air Force Base.  This article outlines a brief history of NASA’s trusted mothership, the oldest active B-52 in service at the time of retirement.

nb 52b balls 8 x 15  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(U.S. Air Force, public domain)

Originally built as an RB-52B reconnaissance variant for the U.S. Air Force, Balls 8 first took to the sky on June 11, 1955.  After being transferred to NASA in 1959, the massive Stratofortress was modified to an X-15 launch platform at North American Aviation’s Palmdale plant, receiving the new designation NB-52B.

nb 52a  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Image: US Federal Government, public domain)

While 93 of the X-15 launches came care of Balls 8’s predecessor, an NB-52A named “The High and Mighty One” – 106 flights of the rocket-powered pioneer were launched by 008. To achieve this, a pylon was fitted beneath the B-52’s right wing between the fuselage and inboard engine, with a 6-by-8 foot section removed from the wing flap to accomodate the X-15’s tail.

balls 8 hl 10  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Image: NASA, public domain)

During the 1960s and ’70s, Balls 8 flew missions supporting the Martin Marietta X-24 and other lifting body aircraft, followed by HiMAT, the Pegasus rocket and the unmanned scramjet-powered X-43, among others.

b 52 balls 8  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Image: NASA, public domain)

The modified B-52 gained its nickname from its NASA tail number 52-008. In an amusing and slightly irreverent tradition, U.S. Air Force personnel refer to aircraft with a number preceeded by multiple zeros as “Balls”, plus the last number – hence Balls 8.

balls 8 52 008  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Images: LanceBarber, public domain; NASA, public domain)

The NB-52B mothership was finally retired on December 17, 2004 after 49 years in the air, having become the oldest active B-52 in service until that time.  Balls 8 was also the only variant still flying other than the H model, and had the lowest number of flying hours of any operational B-52.  The aircraft is pictured below with her replacement, a more modern B-52H.

balls 8 nb 52b edwards  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Images: NASA (top), public domain; RaNma, cc-nc-sa-3.0)

Soon after retirement, Balls 8 was placed on permanent display at the north gate of Edwards Air Force Base, her home for 45 years and – as home of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) – the place where some of the most pioneering aircraft ever designed first took to the sky.