May 29, 2001 NASA's X-40A, a prototype of a space-return vehicle, successfully completed its seventh and final test flight, gathering information and clearing the way for future flights of its larger brother, the X-37.
The unpiloted X-40A, an 85-percent scale model of the X-37, 22 feet (6.7 meters) long and about 2,600 pounds (1,180 kilograms), was released from an Army helicopter above NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif. The series of two-minute descents provided valuable information for development and testing of the full-scale X-37 orbital and re-entry vehicle.
"Every X-40A free flight test met or exceeded our expectations," said Susan Turner, X-37 program manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. "The most significant thing we learned is that our predictions for X-37 are right on target."
The X-37 experimental space plane is designed to demonstrate technologies in the orbital and reentry environments for next-generation reusable launch vehicles that should increase both safety and reliability, while reducing costs by ten-fold.
Guidance, navigation and control systems of the smaller X-40A are similar to those planned for the X-37. They were tested through complex maneuvers such as pitch, roll and yaw adjustments when the nose is raised, rotated and moved side to side during flight. The vehicle was also released off-centerline, not directly over the landing site, testing the flight computer's ability to maneuver the vehicle to a straight approach towards the landing site.
The Boeing Company, NASA's partner in X-37, made major modifications to the X-40A, on loan from the U.S. Air Force, which also participates in the X-37 program. The free flight tests were conducted by Dryden with the cooperation of Edwards Air Force Base.
"We successfully performed seven flights, each time pushing the limits," added Turner. "These tests are helping us identify our safety parameters for tests to be performed on the X-37."
On average, the X-40A free flights lasted approximately 75 seconds from release to landing, with the vehicle reaching speeds of more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) per hour.
Unpowered flights of the X-37, when the vehicle will be attached to NASA's B-52 carrier aircraft then released to glide to Earth, could begin as early as 2002, with orbital missions beginning in 2004.
The X-37 government team is led by Marshall, the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base in Edwards, Calif., and the Space and Missile Systems Center and the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. The X-37 industry team is led by Boeing, Seal Beach, Calif.
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