In March 1995, NASA embarked on a new Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) program with dual objectives: to produce the technology for a new generation of space boosters capable of delivering payloads to orbit at significantly lower price, and to provide a technology base for development of advanced launch systems that will make U.S. aerospace manufacturers more competitive in the global commercial market.
The RLV program also represents a new way of doing business at NASA. The vehicles are being developed on a government/industry partnership basis wherein NASA and the participating manufacturing companies share development costs.
NASA signed four agreements with industry firms for technology development efforts that could lead to commercially available U.S. reusable launch systems early in the 21st century. They would be the first completely new launch vehicles developed in the U.S. since the introduction of the Space Shuttle in 1981.
The initial development is an RLV designated X-34, being developed by American Space Lines, a joint venture of Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC), Dulles, Virginia and Rockwell International's Space Systems Division, Downey, California (Rockwell built the Space Shuttle Orbiters). Designed to deliver relatively small payloads (1,000 pounds), the X-34 is a reusable winged vehicle launched from an aircraft. After a rocket burn of approximately three minutes, the X-34 releases a payload vehicle that flies independently into orbit and is not recovered. The main X-34 vehicle returns to Earth for a wheeled landing on a conventional runway.
Being developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation and Rockwell International, the X-34 small reusable booster will be airlaunched from a 747 transport; it will deliver a payload to orbit, then reenter the atmosphere and land on a runway.
Under an accelerated development schedule, the OSC/Rockwell team expects initial launch of the X-34 in 1998. The craft will serve as a test bed for demonstrating RLV technology and as an operations pathfinder for a larger RLV known as the X-33.
NASA signed cooperative agreements with three companies for X-33 development: Rockwell Space Systems; Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Company, Palmdale, California; and McDonnell Douglas Aerospace, Huntington Beach, California. The agreements call for joint NASA/company work during a 15-month Phase I concept definition and design effort, during which each contractor will develop its own vehicle design, operations plan and business investment strategy.
The results of Phase I will provide the basis for a White House decision in 1996 as to whether to proceed with Phase 11, which involves design, construction and flight testing of an X-33 vehicle. If the decision is affirmative, NASA will select one or more of the participating companies as its industry partner(s) for Phase II. Phase II would continue through the end of the decade, at which time government and industry would jointly decide whether to proceed to development of an operational, next-generation RLV.
The Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Program is managed by the Office of Space Access and Technology in NASA's Washington, D.C. headquarters. Marshall Space Flight Center is host center for both the X-34 and X-33 programs. Government laboratories will work with each of the design teams to apply technology developed in the labs to the new launch systems.
The three basic designs in the NASA/industry reusable launch vehicle competition are shown above: from left, Lockheed Martin's lifting body configuration; the McDonnell Douglas vertical landing vehicle; and Rockwell International's wing body design.