In an op-ed published July 27, 2009, in Space News [“Changing to Renewable Space Transportation”], I asked, “Why, in this era of change and emphasis on renewable and reusable resources, is NASA investing its future space transportation development on ancient and wasteful concepts — throwaway rocket systems.” It was suggested that rather than continuing with the Ares program, which would only modernize Apollo-era concepts, NASA should focus on moving the U.S. commercial and civil space activities forward by developing 21st-century technology for reusable space transportation systems. This focus would resolve the key problems inhibiting space growth — lack of safe, routine flights that can lower the cost of traveling to and from space and increase the commercial use of space for business and pleasure. It was further noted that existing commercially available and developing rocket systems, such as those offered by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences, Space Exploration Technologies or foreign boosters, could satisfy near-term needs.
The new space program proposed for NASA is a step forward in that it halts further NASA development efforts for expendable, man-rated rocket systems and relies on the commercial space transportation sector to support present-day NASA missions. It further broadens the scope of NASA’s exploration missions beyond lunar return and recognizes the potential commercial value of space. It also provides NASA with the opportunity to take another step forward, perhaps the most important — the development of technology for safe space planes that can be used over and over again. These technology developments need to start with safety, reliability and operability leading to high availability and profitable operating costs.
Relieved of the pressure of having to meet a specific operational date and configuration, NASA could undertake incremental developments with X-Plane projects — build a little, test a little, learn a lot. By sponsoring multiple teams and approaches, NASA also would help to grow a competitive space transportation industry base capable of supporting future commercial space developments, government science and exploration programs and other civil and military applications. Multiple teams also would open supporting opportunities for multiple spaceports, helping to nurture the further development of these key supporting infrastructure elements for reusable space transportation.
Multiple long-term research-and-development programs should be initiated, focused exclusively on technology development and demonstrations for “reusable” space transportation systems. NASA needs to provide these programs with goals and requirements that have a commercial market focus that would help to open next-generation markets and provide capabilities for commercial servicing of next-generation NASA missions. The programs must include the manufacturing, operations and maintenance, and training as well as the flight vehicles. Research needs to include health monitoring systems; human factors; long-term material durability and survivability testing; nondestructive testing techniques to confirm maintenance of safety margins; lighter-weight materials, increasing time between maintenance and overhaul; and long-life, reliable engines. A feature of the R&D program would be frequent flight testing of the technologies and operational concepts. Nothing sharpens the mind and provides focus for the team like “the fear of flying.” It makes the teams dig into the details where the devil lies lurking.
Two types of X-Planes should be built and tested — both take off vertically while one lands horizontally and the other vertically. Although many of the vehicle technologies are transferable, operations and applications will vary and stress technologies and subsystems differently. Having two classes of systems flying would enable more flights to accumulate operating experience to help validate operational safety and data to establish reliability. Also, two or more vehicle classes can provide a basis for cooperative multi-organization programs —for example, an Air Force test bed and a NASA test bed with opportunities to fly technologies on both.
The vehicles also provide a meeting ground for cooperation between the existing aerospace companies and the “new space” companies. This would give the entrepreneurial companies access to test capabilities and facilities that otherwise might not be affordable and stimulate and validate the development of new ideas. By offering low-cost flight demonstrations on vehicles made by Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, XCOR and others, the government can leverage its R&D investment while helping to build the industry.
Key elements for a successful X-Plane program are limited, focused goals with fast-paced schedules and well-defined budgets. This is the path the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X) started on and continued with DC-XA and plans for XB, XC, etc. (The X-33 program lost its way by trying to make the X-33 a prototype rather than a research vehicle in much the same way the space shuttle was built without the benefit of learning from a progression of Shuttle-X projects.) Such a program could be laid out with two-year goals, eight-year horizons and new flight test series every six to 12 months. The X-Plane projects need to be funded at levels that would allow multiple vehicles to be built and flown, allowing for incorporation of new concepts and technologies as well as inevitable flight failures.
The resulting enormous new technology and operational database developed would enable NASA, in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, to help develop the standards, processes and procedures as well as relevant technologies and databases required for fail-safe flight worthiness certification of the equipment and personnel for the design, manufacture, operation and maintenance of the new space transportation systems.
NASA has been given the opportunity to return to its roots as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). A challenge for NASA will be organizing to manage in a rapid-prototyping environment demanding small, integrated NASA-contractor teams empowered to carry out the fast-paced projects. In this way, NASA can contribute its technical expertise and unique government facilities to enhance the products and maintain schedules and budgets rather than having to micro-manage projects. Just as NACA’s research capabilities helped to establish the worldwide leadership of the U.S. aviation industry, so can NASA’s research capabilities help to maintain the leadership position of the U.S. space industry with 21st-century reusable space transportation systems.
William A. Gaubatz is the former director of the Delta Clipper programs and the DC-X/XA flight demonstrations. He was a co-founder of Universal Space Lines, where he was president of SpaceAvailable LLC, and is a consultant for “new space” activities. Gaubatz is an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a member of the International Academy of Astronautics, an honorary member of the Japanese Rocket Society, chairman of the Space Tourism Society, co-founder of the annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, and a member of the Space Frontier Foundation.