Release: 00-284

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.”