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NASA's rocket-plane takes first test ride

The X-34
The X-34  

By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- A model of a reusable rocket-powered plane was carried several miles above Earth on its maiden flight Tuesday, hooked under a carrier aircraft that took off from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

The X-34 rocket-plane project is geared toward testing new technologies, said NASA Dryden spokeswoman Leslie Mathews.

"It is a demonstrator to try out different technologies that will be used in future reusable launch vehicles," Mathews said.

The flight, which started about 10 a.m. and landed around noon, was cut short an hour so engineers could check into a possible vibration problem on the rear fuselage of the L-1011 carrier plane, a NASA spokesman said.

The X-34 rocket-plane test was the first of seven such flights needed for Federal Aviation Administration certification of the L-1011. Certification is required any time major changes are made to an aircraft, such as those made to suspend the X-34 from its carrier aircraft.

During the flight, the two craft remained attached, but in future tests later this year, a true X-34 will be released from the L-1011. Five seconds after release, the X-34 will fire a Fastrac rocket engine for two and a half minutes to launch itself into autonomous, computer-driven flight.

Future tests will be flown from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Mathews said.

The sleek X-34 prototype flown Tuesday is about 58 feet long, with a 28-foot wingspan. It was built to simulate the exact shape and weight of the final versions of the rocket-plane. The X-34 program is designed to demonstrate that reusable launch vehicles can be more reliable, fly more often and in worse conditions.

In a few years, two versions of the X-34 are expected to be flown up to 50 miles above Earth for a total of 27 flights to test technologies for a wide variety of NASA missions. Items to be tried out include thermal blankets for the space shuttle and other spacecraft, composite structural components and autonomous landing systems.

The X-34 is built of super-light composites, and engineers will scrutinize pieces of the planes under a microscope after the craft have flown five to 10 times to see how they have withstood the intense pressures of space flight.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia has a $85.7 million contract under NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to design, build and test fly the X-34. Orbital also owns the L-1011.

With fanfare, NASA rolls out space plane prototype
April 30, 1999
NASA announces completion of 'space plane' launch port
March 5, 1999
Space station 'lifeboat' passes second flight test
February 8, 1999
Space station lifeboat
January 19, 1999

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