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NASA Shuts Down X-33, X-34 Programs


NASA Shuts Down X-33, X-34 Programs
By Leonard David, Senior Space Writer, http://www.space.com
posted: 04:14 pm ET, 01 March 2001
First posted March 1, 2001, 4:14 p.m. EST

wpeF.jpg (2740 bytes)    WASHINGTON -- NASA announced Thursday that the problem-plagued X-33 spaceplane project, a venture that aimed to create a single-stage-to-orbit spaceliner, has been scrapped. In addition, the American space agency announced that another reusable rocket, the X-34, is being axed. In total, these NASA resolutions add up to over $1 billion worth of canceled projects.

wpe10.jpg (4997 bytes)     "Obviously, there's a lot of disappointed folks, and I'm one of them," said Arthur Stephenson, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The center is NASA's lead work force in creating vehicles for routine and low-cost access to space.

SLI funding

Stephenson said that NASA will not add funds to the X-33 or X-34 programs from money dedicated to the agency's Space Launch Initiative (SLI). NASA's SLI is designed to push forward technology development for concepts that would be able to launch payloads for NASA, commercial and military missions, as well as fly crews to and from the International Space Station.

The decision by NASA Thursday terminates work on the X-33, a cooperative project between NASA and the lead industrial partner for the project, the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, Stephenson said.

The X-34 contract will expire, and rocket builder Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Virginia was notified of the decision, Stephenson said.

NASA has spent to date $912 million on the X-33, with another $205 million expended on the X-34 project.

In the case of the X-33, Lockheed Martin had invested $356 million of its own monies in the effort to create a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle, Stephenson said.

"I hate to see us not be able to go forward and complete these programs. But we have to make good decisions fiscally, and be responsible in picking those activities that can give us the greatest benefit. And flying these vehicles turned out not to warrant the magnitude of the cost involved," Stephenson said.

The decision to terminate both X-33 and X-34 were made internally by NASA and were not a White House decision, Stephenson said.

The X-34 program was initiated in 1996. It was to provide a low-cost technology test bed that would demonstrate a streamlined management approach with a rapid development schedule and limited testing.

A review by NASA and Orbital Sciences found the projected cost of completing the X-34 had hit unacceptable levels and incurred too much technical risk.

Trouble plagued

Troubled by technical snags, the X-33 rocket plane project, an effort to spark creation of a commercial single-stage-to-orbit vehicle, has been the topic of intense renegotiations between NASA and the lead industrial partner for the project, the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company.

Unveiled in July 1996 by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore and still-on-assignment NASA Administrator, Daniel Goldin, the pilotless X-33 was slated to rocket skyward on the first of a series of suborbital test hops three years later.

The X-33 design is based on a lifting-body shape with two novel "linear aerospike" rocket engines and a rugged metallic thermal protection system. The X-33 also features lightweight components and fuel tanks built to conform to the vehicle's outer shape.

On February 6, tandem aerospike engines were test fired for the first time at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. That blast went the full scheduled duration of 1.1 seconds with no observed anomalies.

Eight more test firings of the twin-flight engines were planned at Stennis before they were to be delivered to Lockheed Martin's X-33 assembly facility in Palmdale, California. The qualification test firings of the unique engines for the spaceplane were to lead to the first high-speed, suborbital flight sometime in 2003.

NASA and Lockheed Martin jointly own the launch site for X-33 at Edwards Air Force Base, along with the vehicle. "We'll be looking at what's the best use of that launch site. I don't have a good answer to that at this point," Stephenson told SPACE.com.

In a statement, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California), chairman of the House Science Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, applauded NASA's decision to terminate the X-33 and X-34 programs. "I'm very happy to see that SLI is back on track advancing the national launch capability. The decision to terminate the X-33 and X-34 sends the signal that we expect corporate commitments to be kept.

Out the window

The X-33 experimental vehicle ran into myriad technical woes, tossing time schedules for getting the spaceplane airborne out the window. Building the X-33 had proven far from trouble free. Stability of the sleek looking wedge-shaped craft at various speed ranges, as well as its overall weight, has plagued designers. Novel "linear aerospike" engines that would have powered the rocket plane also proved troublesome to build.

In November 1999, an X-33 composite liquid-hydrogen tank ran into difficulty while undergoing tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Long considered a major engineering hurdle, the tank lived up to that reputation, causing a major launch slip and forcing NASA and Lockheed Martin to take a second look at the entire program.

For Lockheed Martin, lessons learned in building and flying X-33 were seen key to validating new technologies and reducing risk for the commercial VentureStar -- the firm's fully reusable, single-stage-to-orbit vehicle.

"Getting to a single-stage-to-orbit was viewed as being very difficult…and it's still viewed as very difficult," Stephenson said.

"What we're hearing from industry and our own evaluation is that we believe a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle for a second-generation vehicle [a follow-on to the space shuttle] is not viable at this time. We are focusing on multi-stage, beginning with a two-stage vehicle," Stephenson said.

Brian Berger and Stew Magnuson of Space News contributed to this report.

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