WASHINGTON — NASA’s surprise termination of the X-33 experimental rocket program signals a significant technological shift in the agency’s approach to reducing the cost of launching people and payloads to orbit.

Artist’s conception of the NASA/Lockheed Martin X-33 single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle.
Artist’s conception of the NASA/Lockheed Martin X-33 single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle.

The move is a vote of no confidence, at least in the near term, on the idea of reusable launchers powered by a single rocket stage. Instead, NASA intends to focus on less revolutionary approaches, such as vehicles that jettison stages on their way to space, a senior agency official said.

NASA announced March 1 that the X-33 program will not receive funding this year under the agencys $4.5 billion Space Launch Initiative (SLI). The $1.3 billion X-33 program has been in limbo since suffering a serious fuel tank failure on a test stand in late 1999. Winning SLI funding was the last hope of X-33 prime contractor Lockheed Martin for finishing and flying the suborbital vehicle. The X-33 was a critical technological stepping stone to VentureStar, Lockheed Martin’s now-abandoned effort to build a single-stage reusable launcher. The X-33 cooperative agreement between NASA and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, expires March 31. 

Also passed over for SLI funding this year was NASA’s X-34 program, a trio of atmospheric technology test-bed vehicles built by Orbital Sciences Corp. X-34 flight testing was put on hold last summer due in part to NASA’s tardiness in delivering the vehicles experimental Fastrac engine and wrangling over $170 million worth of changes requested by the agency. Dulles, Va-based Orbital Sciences had hoped to complete the program this year with SLI funding.

NASA’s decision to not sink any more money into the two projects, whose costs had ballooned well above their initial projected price tags, was well received on Capitol Hill. “I’m very glad to see that SLI is back on track advancing the national launch capability,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee. The decision to terminate the X33 and X-34 sends the signal that we expect corporate commitments to be kept.”

X-33 and X-34 once formed the crux of NASA’s efforts to spark the development of a fully reusable launch vehicle. NASA officials had high hopes that the private sector would fund the development of cheap but reliable reusable launchers if the agency helped devel­op some of the high-risk technologies upfront.

But NASA, citing sagging commercial demand for reusable launch vehicle services, changed course last year with the creation of the SLI, a multi-year effort meant to produce by 2005 at least two designs for a vehicle capable of replacing the space shuttle.

The development of a shuttle replacement, NASA and many companies now agree, will have to be funded mostly, if not entirely, by the government. Art Stephenson, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., and the agency’s senior official in charge of the SLI selections, said the shuttle’s replacement, often referred to as a second-generation reusable launch vehicle, will likely be a multiple-stage launcher.

Just five years ago, NASA was betting on a single-stage system like VentureStar. The X-33 program, pursued as a joint venture between NASA and Lockheed Martin, was supposed to produce lightweight composite fuel tanks, high-powered linear aerospike engines, and a host of other advanced technologies deemed essential to building a launcher capable of operating more like an airplane than a rocket NASA now considers a single-stage reusable design like VentureStar too risky in the near term. “Without the composite tanks and some other technologies, we would really be stretching it to go single-stage-to-Orbit at this point,”  Stephenson told reporters in a conference call March 1. “Based on the proposals we are seeing, we really think a multi-stage design is necessary to achieve our goals for a reusable launch vehicle.”

NASA spent $912 million on X-33 and $205 million on X-34. Lockheed Martin invested $356 million of its own money in X-33. Despite the large investment in two systems that probably will never fly, NASA has not wasted its money, Stephenson said.

“The money that we spent bought us a lot of learning and a lot of technology that I think we can apply in the future,” he said.

A subscale model of X-33 is shown about to touch down after a 1998 drop test. Credit: NASA photo/ Tom Tschida

Al Smith, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, said he has no regrets about the company’s investment in X-33.

“This was a good investment for the company and a good investment for the country,” Smith said,

Smith expressed disappointment with NASA’s decision, however, saying, “X-33 is the type of breakthrough work that NASA should be engaged in.”

Smith also said that with the “proper amount” of research and development funding, a single-stage reusable launcher is achievable within NASA’s 10-year horizon. NASA and Lockheed Martin now face the task of dividing up the hardware and software developed during the 5-year X-33 program. The X-34, hardware built under contract for NASA, is considered government property, Stephenson said.

Stephenson said NASA has selected at least 20 proposals for SLI funding this year but will not announce the winners until completing negotiations on the contracts. The announcements are targeted for April. Although NASA’s X-vehicle announcement came the day after the release of U.S. President George W. Bush’s 2002 budget blueprint, which heralded a major shake-up for the International Space Station program, Stephenson insisted that the White House had nothing to do with the cancellation of X-33 and X-34.

“I want to make it very clear that there was no involvement from the White House,” Stephenson said. “The evaluation of these proposals involved 300 people from across NASA … There was no discussion at any time about the administration’s view. It was totally based on an objective review of the proposals.”

Industry reaction

NASA’s decision to kill X-33 and X-34 took the U.S. space agency’s industry partners by surprise. “We were completely blindsided,” one industry official told SpaceNews. 

Officials at Orbital Sciences were still adjusting to the news March 1. 

“Today, Orbital became aware of NASA’s decision to terminate, for its convenience, the contract to build and operate the X-34 reusable launch vehicle,” the company said in a written statement. “As would be expected, our initial reaction is disappointment that NASA chose not to include X-34 in its [SLI] funding plan, despite the significant progress already achieved by the program. However, it would be premature for us to make any substantive comment until we have had a chance to fully gather and evaluate all the information surrounding today’s announcement by NASA.”

Orbital Sciences has finished one X-37 vehicle and delivered it to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California for flight testing that never took place. Two other vehicles were still under construction. 

Lockheed Martin spokesman Evan McCollum said the company submitted multiple proposals under the SLI and expects to win some program funding. NASA asked for proposals addressing a range of potential launch solutions, including single-stage, multi-stage, and a shuttle-derived system. McCollum said Lockheed Martin’s proposals addressed all three approaches.

“We hope to hear very soon that aside from X-33 some or many of our proposals were selected for funding under SLI, “ McCollum said.

Lockheed Martin has 174 employees assigned to the X-33 program, most of them in Palmdale, Calif. McCollum said some of these employees could be moved to other SLI-funded projects the company might win.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...