Magazine article Insight on the News

An All-in-One Space Plane?

Magazine article Insight on the News

An All-in-One Space Plane?

Article excerpt

NASA and Lockheed Martin hope the X-33, the prototype of the next-generation of space planes, will offer commercial access to space.

In a cavernous hangar in Palmdale, Calif., engineers are designing a wedge-shaped plane that could radically alter the space-launch business. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works -- which produced the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes and the F-117 Stealth fighter -- is working in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to build a half-scale prototype of the X-33, a reusable launch vehicle.

The X-33 is a "single-stage-to-orbit" vehicle, meaning it has no external fuel tanks or booster rockets to shed before reaching orbit. "With the half-scale model, we're proving that the technologies are there" says Gene Austin, NASA's program manager. "We're also managing risk and showing that we can do this before we try it with the full-scale model"

Unlike the shuttle, the new space plane would be built and operated commercially, with NASA as a customer. NASA is funding the bulk of the vehicle's development, however. The agency expects to spend $941 million on the X-33 program by the end of next year, while Lockheed Martin will invest at least $287 million.

If forthcoming flight tests are successful, Lockheed Martin plans to unveil a full-size model called VentureStar. The ultimate goal: Reduce the cost of launching' payloads into space from $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound.

"We're going to try to prove that we can put everything inside the vehicle" says Austin. "The X-33 program will give NASA a low-cost access to space."

The existing space shuttles jettison their solid-rocket boosters and external fuel tanks shortly after launch. The boosters are recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, cleaned and refilled with propellant, but a new external fuel tank must be built for every launch. The X-33 will require only inspection, refueling and reloading between flights, which could come within days of one another.

"The whole idea is to get the cost of launching payloads down by building this vehicle more like an airplane than we've ever done before" says Skunk Works spokesman Ron Lindeke.

The X-33 will take off vertically like a rocket, reach an altitude of up to 60 miles and speeds of up to Mach 13 (13 times the speed of sound). …

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