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'X' marks the future:

NASA moves forward with space-planes

August 24, 1999
Web posted at: 5:26 p.m. EDT (2126 GMT)

X plane
NASA animation of the X-34 launching from an L-1011
Windows Media 28K 80K

NASA animation of the X-37 space plane in use
Real 28K 80K
Windows Media 28K 80K

In this story:

Larger X-33 could replace shuttle

X-34 to test launch technologies

X-37 the 'new kid on the block'


By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- Experimental programs to develop and build reusable launch vehicles that could put the same unmanned spacecraft into orbit on nearly consecutive days or eventually replace the space shuttle are well under way, project managers said Tuesday.

It now costs $5,000 to $20,000 to launch a pound of payload into space. That limits space missions to only the highest priority government and most profitable commercial ventures, said Gary Payton, deputy associate administrator for space technology at NASA.

"Today's launch vehicles have been stretched, squeezed, augmented and liposuctioned to the absolute maximum limit," Payton said. "We need to do something different. We need new designs. We need new technologies."

Costs are high because most launch vehicles usually are used only once -- they burn up in space. Even NASA's four space shuttles are aging and need to have expensive parts replaced after each flight.

Now NASA has made it a priority to develop robotic reusable launch vehicles that serve industry and the government and can land themselves back on Earth.

With the single-stage X-vehicles now in development, costs could go down by a factor of 10 while safety and reliability could improve by a factor of 100, Payton said.

Current rocket launchers have a 90 to 98 percent reliability rate, which is too low and would put commercial airline companies out of business, Payton said.

Boeing's Delta II rocket, the industry workhorse, recently set a record with five flights in 68 days. The goal with reusable launch vehicles is to make five flights in 21 days routine, Payton said.

The first X-vehicle was the X-1, used by test pilot Chuck Yeager to break the sound barrier in 1947. Other X-vehicles over the years have led to the development of various military aircraft, like the F-100, and various commercial airliners, like the 707, Concorde and DC-8.

Payton made his comments at a briefing at NASA headquarters, along with several other NASA and industry program managers for the X-33 launch vehicle and X-34 and X-37 space-planes.

Larger X-33 could replace shuttle

Of the three reusable launch programs outlined Tuesday, the X-33 is furthest along. The $1.2 billion joint program between NASA and Lockheed Martin aims to test a design of the VentureStar, a reusable space shuttle that NASA and Lockheed Martin hope to launch in 2005.

VentureStar would be used to transport supplies to space stations and place satellites in orbit more cheaply than the space shuttle.

The triangular X-33, with its tiny wings and two rudders, is a scaled-down version of VentureStar. Built at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works facility in California, it is designed for 15 test flights starting in the summer of 2000.

The first test flight will start out at Edwards Air Force Base and end at a base in Utah, accelerating from Mach 8 to Mach 11 in 14 minutes at an altitude of 450 miles.

The plan for the X-33 is to reduce the turn-around time for flights, with two consecutive seven-day flights planned during the test program, said Gene Austin, the X-33 program manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

Measuring 70 feet long and a bit more across, the X-33 weighs 75,000 pounds without any fuel or cargo, said Cleon Lacefield, the program manager at Lockheed Martin.

X-34 to test launch technologies

The X-34 rocket-plane is designed to be carried to an altitude of 40,000 feet and then released by an L-1011 cargo plane owned by Orbital Sciences, NASA's industry partner for the project, for flights at Mach 8 at the edge of the Earth's atmosphere.

During the 27-flight program, several launch technologies will be tested in space, including a composite liquid oxygen tank designed by Lockheed Martin, said John London, manager of the Marshall-based Pathfinder program that oversees the X-34.

A model of the rocket-plane was towed at high speeds and altitudes earlier this summer after taking off from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

The next test-flight of the X-33 shell is set for Tuesday. A more sophisticated model will undergo a test landing in early 2000, Lindberg said.

Each plane, to cost $100 million to develop, will be designed to fly every 18 to 24 months, London said.

As with the X-33, the plan is to reduce the work force needed for pit stops on the ground between flights, said Bob Lindberg, Orbital's program manager for the X-34.

X-37 the 'new kid on the block'

Starting in late 2002, space watchers looking skyward will see not the space shuttle but something much smaller -- the size of two mini-vans -- as the X-37 returns from a rendezvous or space station maintenance mission.

The self-navigating craft, a $173 million joint project of NASA and Boeing, is a solar-powered orbiter designed for release from the space shuttle. The program will put up to 40 state-of-the-art technologies to the test in orbit around Earth.

As designed, the robotic X-37 could carry up to 500 pounds in its cargo bay and reach speeds up to Mach 25 upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Contractors currently are building pieces of the mini-shuttle for assembly at a Boeing plant in California.

"X-37 is the new kid on the block," said Susan Turner, the X-37 program manger at Marshall. "We've been running hard and fast for about a month."

The X-37 could fly with 10 meters (11 yards) of a spacecraft and carry docking hardware, although it probably won't dock on its first two missions, said Boeing program manager David Manley.

The first flight tests are set for early 2002 as drops from a B-52 leaving from Edwards Air Force Base. In late 2002, the X-37 will under go its first release from the space shuttle for a two-day flight, with a second space mission set to last for 21 days in early 2003.

The three X-programs outlined Tuesday will survive any cuts that could result from the upcoming round of budget negotiations, Payton said. "We're doing just fine," he said.

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April 30, 1999
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Space station 'lifeboat' passes second flight test
February 8, 1999
Space station lifeboat
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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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