NASA and Lockheed Martin have agreed on a plan to go forward with the X-33 space plane program, to include aluminum fuel tanks for the vehicle's hydrogen fuel, a revised payment schedule and a target launch date in 2003. The launch date is contingent on Lockheed Martin's ability to compete and win additional funding under the Space Launch Initiative. NASA and Lockheed believe it is critical to continue work to solve the last remaining barrier to low-cost, reliable access to space.
The restructured plan focuses on providing milestone payments to Lockheed Martin's industry team for completed testing and delivery of their hardware and software systems this year. Additionally, the plan includes greater emphasis on mission safety and more ground demonstration of critical technology prior to actual flight. These steps are being taken by NASA to ensure quality and mission success. NASA is intent on ensuring that the lessons learned from other programs are taken into consideration in any go-forward planning.
The project requires no additional funding from NASA through March 2001. The project will need additional funding for completion, and Lockheed Martin can compete for those funds through the Space Launch Initiative.
The NASA/Lockheed initiative is demonstrating the most advanced breakthroughs in rocket technology in the past 30 years.
"We've demonstrated this on the ground, and now we want to continue to work toward flight demonstration," said Art Stephenson, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
Stephenson noted that the program has so far delivered a revolutionary new rocket engine; a robust, reusable, metallic thermal-protection system; and software and sensors that automatically determine and predict failures and errors before they affect the flight. This technology is applicable to the space program and eventually to the commercial aircraft industry. The program has also developed a small-scale version of a future "spaceport," at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., which can be operated with a significantly smaller ground crew than required at traditional launch facilities.
The sub-orbital X-33 is designed to demonstrate advanced technologies that will dramatically increase launch vehicle reliability and lower the cost of launching payloads to low Earth orbit from $10,000 to $1,000 per pound. The government-industry partnership began in July 1996.
A composite fuel tank structurally failed after a series of tests Nov. 3, 1999, at Marshall. An investigation team found that the unexpected severity of a condition called microcracking was instrumental in the failure of the tank's composite skin, a small portion of which split following the tests.
Work on the X-33 has continued at the Palmdale, Calif., assembly facility during the tank investigation and subsequent negotiations between NASA and Lockheed Martin. Vehicle assembly is currently 75 percent complete, and more than 95 percent of the vehicle's components have been fabricated, tested and delivered to Palmdale. All of the X-33's hardware except the new hydrogen tanks is expected to be completed by the end of 2000. NASA and Lockheed Martin are now proceeding with design of aluminum liquid-hydrogen tanks for the X-33, replacing the experimental composite tanks originally planned.
"The switch to aluminum tanks recognizes that the X-33 program is a commercial challenge as well as a technical challenge," said Gene Austin, X-33 program manager for Marshall. "X-vehicle programs are about taking risks and pushing the envelope. That is how we break through barriers that previously held us back. While composite technologies are a promising part of future space transportation, they require further research. The aluminum tank design still permits us to realize our near-term vision of demonstrating the technologies for a reusable, single-stage next-generation launch vehicle."
"We applaud Lockheed Martin and its industry partners for continuing to move forward on all the critical components of this program," said Austin. "All the partners remain committed to the goals of increasing the safety and reliability of space flight, and reducing the cost."
Note to Editors: For more information about the X-33 space plane program, visit the new X-33 News Center Web site, managed by Marshall Space Flight Center, at: http://www.x33news.com/
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