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NASA develops lighter, cheaper rocket

November 11, 1998
Web posted at: 9:35 a.m. EST
Test-firing of the "air-breathing" rocket   

(CNN) -- An era in which space travel could become as common as air travel is a step closer following the successful test of a revolutionary rocket engine that draws fuel from the atmosphere, NASA officials said Tuesday.

NASA and it industry partners have completed two years of testing new engines that "breathe" oxygen from the air, NASA said in a statement.

"Air-breathing rocket engine technologies have the potential of opening the space frontier to ordinary folks," said Uwe Hueter of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The technologies have been proven in ground testing, but have yet to be demonstrated in flight, Hueter said.

Air-breathing rocket engines could make future space travel similar to today's air travel, in that they would:

o Be completely reusable.

o Take off and land at airport runways.

o Be ready to fly again within days.

An air-breathing rocket engine inhales oxygen from the air for about half the flight, so it doesn't have to store the gas onboard, according to NASA.

As a result, an air-breathing rocket weighs much less at takeoff than a conventional rocket, which carries all of its fuel and oxygen onboard. Getting off the ground is the most expensive part of any mission to low-Earth orbit, and reducing a vehicle's weight decreases cost significantly.

This unconventional approach to getting to space is one of the technologies NASA's Advanced Space Transportation Program at the Marshall Center is developing to make space transportation more affordable, and potentially within the range of business travelers to tourists.

NASA said its goal is to reduce launch costs from today's price tag of $10,000 per pound to only hundreds of dollars per pound.

GASL, a small aerospace company in Ronkonkoma, New York, has conducted most of the air-breathing rocket engine testing at its facilities on Long Island.

NASA's industry partners in developing air-breathing rocket technologies are: Aerojet Corp. of Sacramento, California; Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, California; Astrox Corp. of Rockville, Maryland; Pennsylvania State University of University Park; and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

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