Acquisition seen as important strategic move despite further delay to second test launch

Alliant Techsystems (ATK) has made a surprise purchase of the two leading US hypersonic specialists, GASL and Micro Craft, both involved in NASA's X-43Aair-breathing hypersonic programme. However, NASA has now confirmed that its long-awaited second attempt to launch the X-43A has been delayed again until early 2004.

GASL and Micro Craft, responsible for the initial test and construction of the X-43A vehicles, were bought by ATK from Virginia-based Allied Aerospace. This is an important acquisition for ATK, a $2.2 billion-revenue aerospace and defence company specialising in propulsion, composite structures and ammunition. ATK chief executive Dan Murphy says the company's work on supersonic combustion ramjets (scramjets), missiles and the hypersonic demonstrator is "the key that opens the door to dramatic improvements in space launch and precision stand-off capability".

Allied Aerospace says the sale boosts its balance sheet and allows it to focus on "high-end engineering in the aerothermal gas turbine test and development market", although it will retain involvement through continued control over its low-speed windtunnel in San Diego and its trisonic (sub-, trans- and supersonic) windtunnel in El Segundo, California.

GASL of Ronkonkoma, New York is prime contractor on a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), US Army and Navy effort to develop scramjet projectile and missile technology. As part of the programme, GASL tested a Micro Craft-built quarter-scale conceptual missile, which travelled 80m (260ft) in 30 milliseconds after achieving scramjet operation in a gun-launched test at Arnold AFB, Tennessee in 2001.

Micro Craft is leading a NASA-funded industry team with Boeing, Pratt & Whitney and RJK Technologies, in initial phases of the X-43C follow-on hypersonic demonstrator programme.

Many believe the X-43C project could be abandoned if the second launch attempt fails in early 2004. The first vehicle was destroyed in June 2001 when the Orbital Sciences Pegasus booster transporting the X-43A to its initial scramjet operating speed developed control problems. NASA says the latest hold-ups are related to "intermittent failure of the booster actuator electronic control unit".

Source: Flight International