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Space station lifeboat

NASA draws on familiar technology
to create spaceship for the future

January 19, 1999
Web posted at: 7:30 p.m. EST (0030 GMT)

(CNN) -- Built from off-the-shelf parts, NASA's new space 'lifeboat' looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle. But its parachute delivery from orbit makes it look more like a cargo airdrop than a spacecraft.

This hodge-podge vehicle may sound like something cooked up by a hobbyist on hallucinogens, but it's the real thing -- the prototype for the first new human spacecraft to travel to-and-from orbit in 20 years.

The X-38, as it's called, is being developed by NASA engineers in cooperation with the European Space Agency, primarily as a "lifeboat" for the International Space Station.



How the X-38 returns to Earth

In its initial capacity, the vehicle would be used only if the entire crew has to evacuate because of an emergency on board the space station.

But space officials also hope to apply the design for other purposes, such as a joint U.S. and international human spacecraft that could be launched on the French Ariane 5 booster.

NASA officials say they're developing the X-38 with an eye toward efficiency, taking advantage of available equipment and technology for as much as 80 percent of the spacecraft's design.

"Using available technology and off-the-shelf equipment can significantly reduce costs," said X-38 Project Manager John Muratone.


Many of the vehicle's technologies, though not new, have never before been applied to a human spacecraft.

"We are out to prove that we can produce a highly versatile human spacecraft for significantly less cost than has ever been done before," Muratone said.

Earlier proposals to build a capsule-type crew return vehicle amounted to more than $2 billion in projected development costs. NASA estimates it can develop and build four operational X-38-type vehicles for a fraction of that cost.

The X-38 uses a lifting body concept originally developed by the Air Force's X-24A project in the mid-1970s.

Following the jettison of a deorbit engine module, the spacecraft would glide from orbit unpowered, like the space shuttle, then use a steerable, parafoil parachute -- a technology recently developed by the Army -- for its final descent to landing. Its landing gear would consist of skids rather than wheels.

An unmanned version of the X-38 was dropped from the wing of NASA's B-52 aircraft at an altitude of 23,000 feet during a test on March 12 at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

The test focused on the use of the X-38's parafoil parachute, which deployed as planned within seconds after the vehicle's release from the B-52 and guided the test craft to successful landing.

"This was a real experimental flight test and the culmination of two years of hard work by a team from the Johnson Space Center and the Dryden Flight Research Center," Muratone said. "We had done everything we could to minimize the unknowns. But the real proof of the concept is a successful flight."

Atmospheric drop tests of the X-38 will continue for the next two years using three increasingly complex test vehicles and higher altitudes.

For the first test from space, scheduled for 2000, an unpiloted version will be deployed from the space shuttle and descend to a landing.

The X-38 is slated to begin operations aboard the International Space Station in 2003.

In the early years of the space station, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be attached to the station as a crew return vehicle.

But as the size of the station crew increases, a return vehicle that can accommodate up to seven passengers eventually will be needed, NASA said.

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