March 2, 2001
NASA Ends Project Intended to Replace Shuttle
By WARREN E. LEARY
WASHINGTON, March 1 — NASA today canceled the billion-dollar X-33 rocket
project that the agency had once hoped would lead to a replacement for the
Acknowledging that the five-year- old program would not lead to a viable
rocket, the agency said the benefits of finally flying the long- delayed
experimental prototype would not justify the costs. The National Aeronautics
and Space Administration also announced that a smaller-scale program to
build an airborne test bed for promising new rocket technology, called X-34,
would be canceled because of rising costs.
The programs were part of an effort to develop a reuseable launching vehicle
that would operate more like an airplane, flying frequently, significantly
cutting the cost of sending cargoes into space and improving safety.
"We have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from these X- programs,"
Art Stephenson, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in
Huntsville, Ala., said in a telephone news conference. "But one of the
things we have learned is that our technology has not yet advanced to a
point that we can successfully develop a new reuseable launch vehicle that
substantially improves safety, reliability and affordability."
NASA said the X-33 program would end on March 31, when a cooperative
agreement between the agency and the Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company
expires, unless the company wished to continue alone. Evan McCollum, a
spokesman for Lockheed, said that the company was disappointed in NASA's
decision and that it was unlikely that Lockheed would continue the project.
In 1996, NASA announced with great fanfare that it had selected the Lockheed
X-33 design over two competing proposals to demonstrate technology for a
privately built and owned rocket that would replace the shuttle and other
rockets. The half- scale prototype was to have begun in 1999 suborbital test
flights that would lead to a larger rocket, called Venturestar, that could
have been operational six years later.
Lockheed's design, the most technically advanced of the proposals, called
for a rocket shaped like a flat arrowhead with fins at the bottom. The X-33
was supposed to take off vertically with a new kind of nozzle- less rocket
engine, re-enter the atmosphere protected by a novel kind of metallic
thermal covering and land on a runway like an airplane.
Technical problems, including rupture of a lightweight, composite material
fuel tank, delayed test flights and drove up costs. Mr. Stephenson said NASA
invested $912 million in the X-33 under a contract that froze the
government's contribution, and Lockheed eventually spent $357 million, up
from its original commitment of $212 million.
Patricia A. Dasch, executive director of the National Space Society, a space
advocacy group, said X-33 failed because NASA tried to do too much for too
little money. "NASA tried to do the impossible with the most technologically
challenging proposal," Ms. Dasch said. "It expected industry to bring more
to the table, but the market was never proven and private investors were not
Mr. Stephenson announced the end of the X-33 and X-34 programs when they
failed to qualify for more money in the early rounds of the Space Launch
Initiative, a five-year, $4.5 billion program begun last year that NASA
hopes will lead to a second- generation rocket to replace the shuttle. NASA
invested $205 million in the X-34 under a 1996 contract with the Orbital
Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va., to make a series of supersonic,
air-launched robot craft to test new technologies. Mr. Stephenson said
rising costs made this project noncompetitive.
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