Tim Furniss/LONDON

NASA HAS selected Lockheed Martin to design, build and test the X-33, a half-scale model of a proposed Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) to replace the Space Shuttle fleet. A full-scale vehicle could be operational by 2005.

The fully re-useable Lockheed Martin VentureStar will have its first automatic, sub-orbital, test flight in March 1999, taking off vertically and landing horizontally, followed by 15 more flights before the end of that year.

The 38.1m-long, 12,383kg, VentureStar is based on a lifting-body design with a new aerospike engine - to be developed by industry partner Rocketdyne - and a rugged metallic thermal-protection system. The other partner is AlliedSignal Aerospace. Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas were the losing bidders.

Three flight models will be built of the VentureStar, which will reach altitudes of 80km and speeds of Mach 15, flying from and returning to Edwards AFB, California.

NASA has budgeted $941 million, for the project and Lockheed is investing $200 million of its own funds. "Our role is to develop the high-risk technologies that industry can't afford," says NASA Administrator, Daniel Goldin, "but we won't build the vehicle. NASA will be a user, not an operator."

The Space Shuttle was given the go-ahead in 1972, was first flown in 1981 and has completed just 78 missions at a cost of about $3 billion a year. "We want to fly the X-33 in 32 months. We're not going to wait a decade," said Goldin. "It's time to do something bold and risky."

If the X-33 tests receive NASA approval, Lockheed Martin and its partners will decide whether it is economically feasible to develop the estimated $5 billion RLV with joint space-agency funding.

It is proposed to fly the RLV 50 times a year, cutting the cost of flying into orbit from $20,000 per kilogramme of payload to $2,000 per kilogramme, with a turnaround of days. The RLV is also seen as potential commercial launcher and military vehicle. The development will be complemented by continued testing of the McDonnell Douglas DC-XA and by the new X-34 Mach 8 launcher demonstrator being built by Orbital Sciences.

Source: Flight International