June 29, 1999 Locked to the belly of its newly modified L-1011 carrier aircraft, a test version of NASA's X-34 rocket plane is scheduled to make its first flight this week. The prototype of the robotic spacecraft will test new technologies and methods of operations needed to develop low-cost reusable space vehicles.
The first flight will begin at approximately 11 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, June 29, from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA. In this series of flights, the L-1011 and X-34 maneuvers will include a simulated launch flight. This captive-carry flight, in which the aircraft and test vehicle remain combined, will check for potentially hazardous conditions that may have resulted from modifications made to the L-1011 to enable it to carry the X-34.
When powered flights of the X-34 begin later this year, the experimental vehicle will be carried aloft by the L-1011, then released for rocket-powered flight and a standard horizontal landing. Eventually, the X-34 will perform high- speed suborbital free flights to demonstrate technologies such as advanced thermal protection system, composite structural components and autonomous landing.
The operational program is designed to demonstrate that reusable launch vehicles can be more reliable, fly more often and in worse conditions than current vehicles using a smaller operations team.
This captive-carry flight is the first of several tests that will be conducted as part of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification process for the mated vehicles. When a commercial airplane like the L-1011 is altered, the FAA must certify that the changes have not adversely affected the plane's safe operation.
The unpiloted X-34 is a single-engine rocket plane that will fly itself with onboard computers. It measures approximately 58 feet long, 11 feet tall and 28 feet across the wings. It will be powered by the new Fastrac engine, designed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, which also manages the X-34 program for NASA.
Dryden Flight Research Center is supporting the captive- carry part of the program with flight testing and ground vibration tests. In 1996, NASA awarded Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, VA, a contract now worth $85.7 million to design, build and test fly the X-34. The contract includes a structural test vehicle for vibration and captive carry flights and two flight vehicles. Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, VA owns the L-1011, which also launches the company's Pegasus Launch Vehicle.
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