Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

NASA has agreed to advance Lockheed Martin some of the funds remaining in its X-33 programme budget to pay for work completed. But the company will have to compete for the rest of the funds required to finish the assembly and flight test of the reusable launch vehicle (RLV) technology demonstrator.

Lockheed Martin and NASA have been negotiating on restructuring the X-33 programme since a composite liquid hydrogen tank failed ground tests in November last year, delaying the final assembly and flight test of the vehicle.

Release of the $102 million still to be spent from NASA's original $912 million budget was tied to meeting two key milestones: roll out and first flight. Now the US space agency has agreed to advance Lockheed Martin $68 million of the remaining funds so that the company can pay its subcontractors for work undertaken since the tank failure. The industry team has invested $356 million so far in the X-33, up from the $212 million originally committed.

NASA is putting no new money into the X-33, and the advance will only fund the programme until March. Lockheed Martin will have to compete under NASA's Space Launch Initiative for the funding to complete the design and fabrication of a replacement aluminium fuel tank, finish the assembly of the X-33 and flight test the vehicle.

If more funding can be secured under the space agency's second-generation RLV risk-reduction programme, the X-33 will fly in 2003, says Lockheed Martin Space Systems president Al Smith.

NASA unveiled its Space Launch Initiative earlier this year. The scheme is intended to lead to the commercial development of competing second-generation RLVs beginning in 2005.

Smith says Lockheed Martin is planning a second-generation RLV based on X-33 technology and designed to meet NASA's requirements for a ten-fold reduction in launch costs and 100 times higher reliability compared with the Space Shuttle. But NASA says the programme must be changed to place greater emphasis on ground demonstration of critical technology before flight.

Art Stevenson, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, says the agreement "keeps the X-33 team viable and gives Lockheed Martin the option of continuing the activity by completing a proposal under the Space Launch Initiative".

If Lockheed Martin decides not to proceed, the deal gives NASA the option of assuming ownership of hardware built under the X-33 programme. "We are not willing to walk away if there is some way to take advantage of our investment," says NASA's X-33 programme manager Gene Austin.

Source: Flight International