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 The Tragedy of the X-33

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specfiction Posted - 01/24/2008 : 12:15:37
The other day there was a story about Branson and Rutan out in the Mojave desert christening SpaceShip 2, the new space-plane, mothership combo that Virgin Galactic hopes will open a new age in commercial spaceflight. That announcement signals how far NASA has fallen. Back in the 50's, NASA was a rouge group of pilots, scientists, and trouble makers in the Mojave desert flying space-planes. That WAS the primordial NASA. In all this time, we are now hoping that something resembling the 21st century version of the X-15 will herald a Back-to-the-Future revitalization of the manned space program.

But what is the reality of the Branson/Rutan's venture? Well Spaceship 2, as I said before, is a current version of the X-15/B-52 combo that flew sub-orbital more than 50 years ago. I'm not taking anything away from Burt Rutan. The best thing the next administration could do to jump-start spaceflight is to make Rutan the no-nonsense head of NASA and to not fire him when calls his political overseers--idiots. But the reality of the sub-orbital program that SS2 addresses falls far short of orbital flight. Sub-orbital flight entails a parabolic trajectory whose summit is characterized by zero vertical speed. The craft then glides back to Earth. Orbital fight requires much more powerful engines that can insert the craft into LEO at more than 15000 mph. Then reentry requires a heat-shield to shed that energy without the craft breaking up. SS2 is far from this goal.

Now to the tile of this piece. As the Virgin Galactic announcement is made, one can only hang their head remembering the X-33. About seven years ago, NASA canceled the X-33, the last in a breed of truly revolutionary good-ideas, championed this time by Al-Gore--remember him? The X-33 was so innovative that after a billion dollars of investment, the Skunk Works decided to throw in the towel. So what went wrong?

The X-33 was designed as the Shuttle's replacement. The magic single-stage obiter that would finally bring down the price of transport to LEO to around $1000/lb and herald a new era of space business. The problem was that there were just too many new aspects to the X-33: new engines (areospike), new carbon composite skin and fuel tanks, new non-ceramic heat-shield, new avionics, etc, etc. So what went wrong?

What went wrong was that in the 80's, the Space Shuttle, arguably the most impressive machine ever built, was experimental. After 30 years, almost nothing was done to update it. Many of the X-33 improvements could have been incrementally made to the Shuttle. In the process, perhaps many of these systems could have been perfected, in a slower more deliberate way. But that's not the way it was done. In our usual brain-dead bureaucratic way, people (like Dan Quayle) made decisions that made little sense. And what we got for our trouble is a timid, bureaucratic agency that's afraid to promote a logical agenda, no less bold outrageous ideas like the original NASA.

What NASA needs is Burt Rutan, but he'd probably turn the job down.


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