NASA programme officials are crafting plans for a new hypersonics initiative, following the successful Mach 7 flight of the scramjet-powered X-43A on 27 March. The agency has cut all funding for hypersonics, except an M10 flight of the X-43A later this year, and the new plan will have to compete with seven other proposed initiatives for NASA funding, beginning in fiscal year 2006.

"There is a groundswell of support [for hypersonics] following the X-43A flight," says Paul Bartolotta, revolutionary turbine accelerator (RTA) project manager at NASA Glenn Research Center. The RTA project with General Electric to develop an M4-plus turbine engine is among those programmes that would be resurrected if the new hypersonics initiative wins backing.

Bartolotta says the four centres involved in hypersonics research - Ames, Dryden, Glenn and Langley - are "putting a package together" for presentation to NASA's Aerospace office in mid-May. They are working on a multi-year, multi-phase plan for 2006-26. Included in the five-year first phase would be the definition of civil and military "vision vehicles" - reference designs used to measure the benefits of specific technologies.

"We are not starting from scratch," says Bartolotta, citing the work accomplished under NASA's Next Generation Launch Technologies (NLGT) programme. "What was lacking from NGLT was a reference vehicle, so we could take technologies and compare them to a baseline to see if they improved performance or not and use that to make technology investment decisions." Space access and hypersonic cruise vision vehicles are planned.

Urgent efforts are under way, meanwhile, to rescue the RTA programme before GE's design team disperses. Bartolotta says the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was relying on the RTA to provide low-speed propulsion for the reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle envisaged under its Falcon programme to demonstrate technologies enabling time-critical, global-range strike missions.

NASA saved about $100 million by cancelling the RTA, Bartolotta says. Another $125-140 million would have been required for the RTA- and scramjet-powered reusable combined-cycle flight demonstrator (RCCFD), which was planned to fly at M7 in 2011. RTA and RCCFD will be part of the proposed hypersonics initiative, he says. If funding is secured, the RTA-1 ground-test engine would run in 2008, a delay of two years.

Source: Flight International