Grounded NASA Space Plane Poised for Comeback?

A decade after they were unceremoniously sidelined, two experimental NASA space planes could be on the cusp of a dramatic comeback. Last week, NASA contractors moved the two, 59-foot-long X-34s from open storage to a test pilot school in California’s Mojave Desert. There, workers from Orbital Sciences, the X-34’s original builder, will inspect the two robotic rocketships with an eye to flying them again. If the X-34s have held up since their 2001 parking, they could help boost America’s tiny-but-growing arsenal of super-fast, inexpensive, reusable spacecraft.

The X-34 program was a product of a mid-1990s space-plane craze (a revival of a movement from the ’60s) that aimed to reduce the number of rocket stages needed to get into orbit. Over roughly a decade, NASA and the Air Force experimented with a number of single-stage vehicles. Some of those programs hit insurmountable technical obstacles. Others proved too expensive. By the early 2000s, almost all of them had gone defunct. After spending $200 million, NASA shut down the X-34 program before the first flight, citing “technical risk” mostly related to the craft’s engines. Moreover, the space agency had lost faith in the whole concept of cheap, single-stage spaceflight.

Then, in 2004, famed aviation designer Burt Rutan and aerospace firm Scaled Composites launched their rubber-fueled Space Ship One rocketship into near-orbit, snagging a $10-million prize and proving that low-cost space access actually was possible. That seemed to reinvigorate government space-plane efforts. Embattled tech reformer Franz Gayl got busy arguing on behalf of a plan to build space transports for the Marine Corps. The Air Force quietly readied its mysterious X-37B “mini-Space Shuttle,” which today prowls orbit on secret errands. Now NASA could get back into the space-plane game in short order, provided the X-34s are still flyable.

Any fresh X-34 test program would likely mirror the abortive efforts a decade ago. A modified airliner would launch the X-34 from high altitude, much like the White Knight motherships launch Rutan’s space planes. The X-34’s own engine would boost it into orbit. After testing, the craft would land like an airplane, ready to be refueled, refurbished and launched right back into space.


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