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NASA bins two reusable launchers

By | March 14, 2001

      Satellite operators’ hopes of seeing a drastic drop in space launch costs – up to 90 per cent was the objective – through the introduction of Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs) has received a blow in a recent NASA announcement.

      Headed for the waste bin are two of the US agency’s plans for development vehicles that have actually moved from paper to cutting metal, or at least reinforced plastic composites. One is the X-33, a “lifting body” or blended wing/fuselage, single-stage craft from Lockheed Martin that was earlier selected from two competing proposals. The other is the X-34, a smaller winged vehicle from Orbital Sciences that was intended to be air-dropped for in-atmosphere Mach 8 flight tests to prove propulsion technology and autoland capability.

      Neither were full-scale “Shuttle replacements”. The bigger X-33 was to be a half-scale working model of a future craft to be called “VentureStar”, to be financed wholly by Lockheed Martin (LM), or that was the plan. In fact, LM contributed $357 million (E384m) to X-33, compared with NASA’s input of $912 million.

      The programme did run into big trouble in November 1999, when its composite liquid-hydrogen tank delaminated and burst. Despite the company’s offer to remake the tank in aluminium, NASA decided that “the technology was not mature enough” and “the benefits of testing the X-33 in flight did not justify the cost.”

      The X-33 did have a Boeing-Rocketdyne “Linear Aerospike Engine”, the XRS-2200, which had just begun final testing. Whether engine testing will continue (for use on another vehicle) is still undecided.

      Much the same story applies to the X-34, one of three flight models was completed, though here there was no catastrophic failure. But NASA decided that completing the programme would entail risk-reduction spending which could not be justified.

      These moves leave just one more string to NASA’s bow, the X-37, which will apparently still get funding from the Space Launch Initiative. This is NASA’s latest Congress- approved plan to spend $4.5 billion by the end of 2005 on developing a vehicle “to be privately owned and operated.” The X-37 is 50 per cent funded by Boeing, which is also NASA’s main Space Station contractor. It is believed that station overruns, likely to reach $4 billion, could be behind these latest economies.

      The X-37 will only be a reusable upper stage, needing to be started on its way by either an expendable launcher or the Shuttle.

      Shuttle 2 still seems a long way off, but next month will be 20 years after Shuttle 1’s first flight. There is little wonder that Phillippe Couillard, head of EADS Launch Vehicles, which is prime contractor for Arianespace, thinks that Reusable Vehicle plans are for the birds at present.

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