Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Rusting In Backyard – How NASA’s Pipedream For Affordable Space Flights, The X-34 Reusable Launch Vehicle, Ended Up In Someone’s Backyard

The X-34 was initially envisioned as a reusable two-stage launch vehicle with a Russian RD-120 engine for modest orbital payloads. However, in a tragic state of events, it somehow ended up in someone’s backyard.

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The goal of the X-34 program was to make space travel far more frequent and affordable for NASA and the Air Force. Finally, a pair of rocket plane demonstrators were constructed, but they could never perform to their total capacity.

But when the program’s initial popularity waned, the X-34 vehicles were found decomposing in someone’s backyard in Lancaster, California, close to their previous residence at Edwards Air Force Base.

In 1996, NASA began the project to develop an unmanned X-34 space plane. The Marshall Space Flight Center, a part of the Redstone Arsenal of the United States Army in Alabama, carried out the project.

X-34 | NASA
X-34 | NASA

The primary objective of this program was to create a test bed that could be used to quickly evaluate new technologies for a future reusable, inexpensive spacecraft. In addition, the program would offer an opportunity for NASA to study enhanced management practices for fast-track development and testing of advanced technologies.

The X-34 program focused on next-generation technologies that included vehicle systems that were reliable, easy to maintain, had high performance, and allowed rapid identification of vehicle problems. It was designed to operate in Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLV) environments, including adverse weather conditions and crosswind landings.

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In a nutshell, it was a very aspirational program that aimed to make space travel easier, more convenient, and less expensive and function as a harbinger of next-generation technology and more advanced space travel.

How Did The X-34 Come About?

The goal to establish the framework for a space access vehicle that would be much less expensive than the Space Shuttle was one of the program’s main driving forces. According to an official fact sheet, NASA planned to reduce the cost per pound of payload launched into orbit from $10,000 to $1,000.

Orbital Sciences Corporation subsequently received the contract to build what became known as the X-34. The first vehicle, the X-34A-1, was unveiled on April 30, 1999.

According to NASA, it had a wingspan of about 28 feet and was just over 58 feet in length. It had reusable fuel tanks, unique thermal protection for high-speed flight, a lightweight composite airframe, and other features designed to enable repeated trips to and from space. The vehicle shielding was also capable of withstanding subsonic missions during bad weather.

NASA Armstrong Fact Sheet: X-34 Advanced Technology Demonstrator | NASA
File Image: X-34 Advanced Technology Demonstrator

The X-34 design would rely on a mother ship aircraft to lift it to the correct height before a mission. Once there, the vehicle would detach from the carrier aircraft and launch itself using a Fastrac rocket motor to an altitude of roughly 264,000 feet while flying a pre-planned course.

The Fastrac, also known as the MC-1, was developed internally by engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center as part of a project to create a low-cost rocket engine. After that, NASA hired Summa Technology, Inc. to construct these motors.

Perhaps, NASA anticipated that the X-34s would reach hypersonic speeds of about Mach 8 thanks to the pump-fed liquid fuel rocket engine. By this time, it was expected that the vehicle would complete at least 25 full missions.

X-34A-1 airframe at the time of delivery to NASA

In a series of unpowered ground tests in July 2000, NASA used a tractor truck to pull and release the X-34A-1 to the coast at various speeds. On July 20, 2000, the X-34A-1 made two runs at speeds ranging from five to ten miles per hour. The vehicle reached 30 mph during subsequent tests four days later.

At that time, NASA intended to carry out an additional six weeks of ground testing to boost the X-34A-1’s speed to 80 miles per hour. The spacecraft was planned to conduct 27 powered and unpowered test flights that same year. While all looked well, things soon started to go south.

The Peak And Fall Of The X-34 Program

After the reasonably decent results from the first, Orbital Sciences also created a second airframe, the X-34A-2, while NASA continued to test the X-34A-1.

This sample was supposed to be delivered to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the Fastrac engine would be installed, and it would undergo a series of test firings before going to Dryden for flight testing.

The X-34A-2 would accelerate to speeds of up to Mach 5 during powered flight tests at Dryden, starting at about Mach 2. NASA aimed to demonstrate the capability of turning the vehicle around and getting it ready for another trip within 24 hours by conducting one flight test on average every 14 days.

NASA would next examine a third airframe, the X-34A-3, across the whole anticipated flight envelope using the flight test data from the X-34A-1 and A-2. There were also ideas for further advancements based on the X-34’s fundamental design.

The X-34B and the whole X-34 flying test program were never completed. The X-34A-3 was also never completed by Orbital Sciences.

Together with Orbital Sciences, NASA reviewed the program’s specifications and testing schedule in 2000. The two parties concluded that the test plan for the vehicle’s various internal systems, particularly its avionics and automated landing system, contained significant risks.

According to NASA, the X-34’s ultimate goal was to be able to land independently and do it in the face of crosswinds with gusts of more than 20 miles per hour.

By the end of 1999, a separate joint venture between NASA and the US military, the Space Launch Initiative (SLI), had provided an additional $16 million for testing.

NASA formally terminated the X-34 program and the X-33 project in 2001 so SLI funding could be used for other, higher-priority projects. Furthermore, whether this choice was influenced by competing classified programs or redundancy is unknown.

The two airframes were stored in a decaying hanger open to the elements, birds, and other animals. In 2007, Ashley Wallace, a photographer specializing in aviation, captured some images of them in this terrible condition.

According to satellite imagery, the X-34s’ wreckage was still present at that time, known as NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards as of 2015.

They were parked outside with other abandoned test aircraft that the storied facility had formerly utilized. At about the same time, the Air Force acquired ownership of the X-34s from NASA.

Today, the X-34s no longer reside at Armstrong Flight Test Center, but that doesn’t mean they are displayed with pride at a museum or used for instruction by a technical college.

About 25 miles from their previous residence at Edwards Air Force Base, they are currently interred in a backyard in rural Lancaster, California.

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