>By Ray Johnson, Air Force Flight Test Center Public Affairs
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFPN) — Since the Roman Empire, military commanders have desired owning the high ground needed to dominate the battlefield.
With today’s ever-advancing technology, that ancient philosophy remains even more applicable. But instead of rocky slopes, the modern high ground is space. And instead of foot soldiers serving as lookouts, it’s satellites sailing quietly thousands of miles overhead.
Launching a satellite into space, however, is a little more difficult — and expensive — than ordering a legionnaire up a hill.
Currently, it costs $10,000 per pound to put satellites into space. The Air Force and it’s space partner, NASA, would like to see this bill lowered to $1,000 per pound since reaching and keeping the spatial high ground is becoming an increasingly significant and frequent endeavor. And corporations, who are moving more and more into space, also would like to see a price tag with fewer zeroes
Consequently, there’s going to be tremendous research focused on reducing today’s high cost of space travel, said Lt. Col. Don Thompson, director of the Air Force Flight Test Center’s Access to Space Office.
Thompson’s 15-man unit, also known as ATSO, provides Air Force support to NASA and commercial access-to-space flight test activities, plus it assesses leading-edge space technology for potential military use.
One such endeavor is the X-33 technology demonstrator. A wedge-shaped, unmanned vehicle, the X-33 is a half-scale version of a planned
single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle, or RLV, called VentureStar — a possible replacement for an aging space shuttle system. Unlike the shuttle, which piggybacks on booster rockets and fuel tanks, VentureStar would be self-contained and wouldn’t need external power.
The aim of any RLV program is "to build a vehicle that takes days, not months to turn around; dozens, not thousands, of people to operate; with launch costs that are a tenth of what they are now," said Dan Goldin, NASA administrator.
Hopefully, developing this technology will result in the United States "recapturing lost space business and providing an operational advantage to the military mission," added Johnny Armstrong, deputy director of ATSO.
Obviously, maintaining a celestial high-ground edge with fewer resources would be one such benefit.
Another member of RLV family being tested at Edwards is the X-34. Also an unmanned vehicle, X-34 is undergoing ground taxi tests now and will be conducting glide flight tests from an L-1011 aircraft.
The X-33 and X-34 are just two of several experimental vehicles that the Access to Space Office and NASA are working together on during
developmental stages. Working in close alliance with NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, which is located at Edwards, and various contractors, ATSO also supports X-34, X-37, X-38, X-40 and X-43 programs.
Not since the 1950’s have there been so many X-planes here, Thompson noted.
One of the more prominent is the X-38, which NASA hopes to deploy by 2005 as a lifeboat for the International Space Station, replacing a Russian Soyuz capsule.
Ongoing flight tests are underway to develop the X-38’s parafoil landing system. Follow-on flights will include reentry and landing after the spacecraft is deployed from the shuttle during an actual orbiter mission.
X-38 program officials say the project has two purposes. First is to prove that a low-cost return vehicle for the space station can, indeed, be built. Second is to show that a human spacecraft can be developed for a price much lower than expected.
Originally, the crew-return vehicle project was estimated to cost $2 billion in the late 1980’s. But under the current plans, NASA hopes to build one and test-fly it in space for a tenth of that.
One reason why: The X-38 uses a lifting body design already proven and tested more than 30 years ago. The Air Force carried out some of that testing here with the X-23 in 1967 and the X-24A from 1969 to 1971. In fact, with flight tests done here in the 1950’s and the 1960’s on hypersonic aircraft such as the X-20 Dynasoar and the X-15, one could say Edwards is where much of RLV research began.
"Someone at the AFFTC has been involved — hands-on, not looking over someone’s shoulder — from the early hypersonic days to the space shuttle and now to a new generation of X vehicles," said Armstrong, who has served as an engineer on every X-vehicle for the past 40 years. "We have partnered with NASA for decades in exploring the unknowns of the hypersonic flight regime."
There is one big difference, though, between the ’50s and today: who’s flying these experimental craft — or actually, who isn’t.
"The current series of X-vehicles are extremely advanced," Armstrong explained. "Unlike their predecessors that had pilots in the cockpit who I could talk to, these vehicles are all unmanned, which adds a new dimension and complexity to flight testing."
Contributing to these modern experimental programs are ATSO engineers who all have extensive backgrounds and "irreplaceable" experience in the design and testing of hypersonic vehicles and rockets, said Thompson, who holds a doctorate in aeronautical/astronautical engineering and also pilots B-52 bombers. That experience includes working on the X-15, on the lifting body series, space shuttle entry and landing, expendable launch vehicles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and fighter, bomber and cargo aircraft.
Today, ATSO members also help manage rocket engine testing for and by commercial customers at facilities run by the Air Force Research Lab Propulsion Directorate here.
As for tomorrow, Thompson believes ATSO "will be around for a while."
"If you look at the Air Force’s newest vision statement," he said, "we are merging air and space into an aerospace force, and we are moving out into space. Currently, we are an office, but I can see us one day growing into a combined test force."
[Air Force News Photo 1: http://www.af.mil:80/photos/Aug2000/001167a.jpg] An artist’s concept drawing shows the X-33 in flight. The X-33, a half-scale version of a planned reusable launch vehicle, is just one of several experimental-vehicle programs that the Access to Space Office is working on with NASA. (NASA graphic)
[Air Force News Photo 2: http://www.af.mil:80/photos/Aug2000/001167b.jpg] The second X-38 prototype glides to a landing over an Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., lake bed during flight testing earlier this year. Besides the Access to Space Office, other base units that support NASA experimental vehicle programs include range safety, weather, data acquisition, emergency services and communications. (NASA photo by Tom Tschida)