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Prototype space station 'lifeboat' passes first test

X-38 on test run
An X-38, tucked under the wing of a B-52 bomber, made its first airborne aerodynamic test Thursday
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NASA animation of the X-38 in action
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  • March 12, 1998
    Web posted at: 4:18 p.m. EST (2118 GMT)

    From Correspondent Greg LaMotte

    MOJAVE DESERT, California (CNN) -- The prototype for a wingless "space lifeboat" enjoyed a successful free flight Thursday in the most important test it has undergone to date.

    NASA tucked the wingless X-38 aircraft under the wing of the nation's oldest operating B-52 bomber for its first-ever drop test over the Mojave Desert. The Air Force bomber carried it into position, then let it go at an altitude of 23,000 feet (6,977 meters) for a test flight that lasted only a couple of minutes.

    The X-38 is a pilotless craft designed to become the escape vehicle for the future international space station.

    "We're concerned about scenarios on the space station where someone is injured or we have damage to the space station or there's a problem with the orbiter and we need to bring the crew home," said John Muratore, the X-38 mission director.

    The X-38 is only one-sixteenth the size of the vehicle that will be docked at the space station in the year 2003; the full-size model will hold seven passengers, none of whom will need to be a pilot, since the escape vehicle will be controlled from Earth.

    The X-38 is built to glide through the sky on lift generated by its aerodynamic shape before deploying a huge controllable parachute, or parafoil. The aircraft has no landing gear; it sets down on skids.

    "The parafoil just gives you a lot more capability to land in almost a dozen places around the Earth," said project manager Bob Baron. "At Kennedy Space Center, or Edwards Air Force Base, or the ocean. You can do a lot of things with it."

    While the first drop test of the X-38 got near-perfect marks from scientists in charge of the project, it was not flawless. Observers held their breath when the parafoil became twisted, and a tear developed. However, mission controllers were able to correct the problem during the spacecraft's descent and it landed exactly as intended.

    Now, Muratore said, his team must figure out what went wrong and correct it.

    "What we've got to find is, did the parafoil twist around the vehicle, or did the vehicle twist around the parafoil?" Muratore said. "We're going to have to look at the data very carefully and make sure we're putting the fix in the right place."

    This test was the first of some 30 drop tests the X-38 will undergo. One of them, scheduled for the year 2000, will test the entire reentry process when the space shuttle deploys the craft from space.


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