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New space plane project takes off

Artist's concept of X-37
Artist's concept of X-37 re-entering Earth's atmosphere  

July 15, 1999
Web posted at: 6:55 p.m. EDT (2255 GMT)

By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- NASA and Boeing have agreed on a $173 million project to develop an experimental space plane called the X-37 to serve as a test bed for new reusable rocket technologies.

Airplanes and rockets that get the X-designation are experimental, high-speed vehicles, but most of them are incapable of achieving orbits in outer space, re-entering Earth's atmosphere and autonomous landings.

The X-37 could achieve those feats and more, said Boeing program manager David Manley.

"We're going to do some missions in orbit, like rendezvous and station keeping," he said. "On the second flight we plan to stay up there for almost three weeks and test some of our systems.

Eventually, the X-37 will be ferried into orbit by the space shuttle or launched by a rocket. But first, engineers will oversee dropping its slightly smaller, slower prototype, the U.S. Air Force X-40, from a B-52 to see how it performs in flight and an autonomous landing at NASA's Dryden Space Flight Center.

The X-40 drop test is set for next year and the first X-37 drop is set for late 2001. The first shuttle flight carrying the X-37 is expected in late 2002. The space plane is designed to reach speeds up to Mach 25 -- about 17,000 mph.

 The latest X-projects:
Experimental flight vehicles under development:
  • X-32: prototype fighter plane (Boeing)
  • X-33: reusable, next-generation space shuttle (NASA/Lockheed Martin)
  • X-34: sub-orbital reusable rocket-plane for technology demonstrations (NASA/Orbital Sciences)
  • X-35: prototype fighter plane (Lockheed Martin)
  • X-36: small tail-less jet airplane aimed at testing redesigns of stealth fighters (NASA)
  • X-37: experimental space plane to test reusable launch vehicle technologies (NASA/Boeing)
  • X-38: "space lifeboat" crew return vehicle (NASA)
  • X39-X42: classified or Department of Defense projects
  • X-43: aeronautical hypersonic engine vehicle (NASA)

Space plane aimed at cutting costs

Possible technologies for testing with the X-37 include thermal protection systems; storable, non-toxic liquid propellants; and aerodynamic features for reusable space vehicles.

"X-37 will serve as a test bed for 41 airframe, propulsion and operations technologies designed to make space transportation and operations significantly more affordable," said Ron Prosser, vice president of Advanced Space for Boeing Phantom Works.

Prosser said the technologies developed and demonstrated on X-37 would eventually make routine, safe, low-cost access to space possible with high reliability, fast turnaround and minimal operational crews.

"Our goal is to make space travel as available, affordable and reliable as aircraft travel," said Rick Stephens, vice president and general manager of Boeing Reusable Space Systems.

The vehicle is 27.5 feet long with a wingspan of 15 feet and a 7-foot-long cargo bay for experiments.

The U.S. Air Force contributed $16 million to the X-37 program to pay for solar panels on the plane that will give it enough power to stay in the air for three weeks or more.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center will lead the X-37 government team.

NASA's rocket-plane takes first test ride
June 29, 1999
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

Space Transportation Programs
  • X-33
  • X-34
NASA Homepage
  • NASA: Liftoff to Space Exploration
  • X-34 Rocket Plane Takes to the Sky As Part of Safety Check
  • NASA Marshall Space Flight Center - News Center
The Boeing Company
  • Space Systems
  • Future X Homepage
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