The Real Story Behind NASA’s Resurrected Space Plane

Why did NASA quietly move two long-grounded X-34 space planes for inspection? Did they want to see if they could fly? Were they eyeing a return to space via reusable, airplane-style vehicles? Here's what they were doing and why.

The aviation and space press buzzed last week with the news that NASA had quietly moved its two long-grounded X-34 space planes from open storage at the space agency's Dryden center - located on Edwards Air Force Base in California - to a test pilot school in the Mojave Desert. At the desert facility, the mid-'90s-vintage, robotic X-34s would be inspected to determine if they were capable of flying again. It seemed that NASA was eying a dramatic return to the business of fast, cheap space access using a reusable, airplane-style vehicle - something the Air Force has enthusiastically embraced with its mysterious X-37B spacecraft.

The truth, it turns out, is a bit more complicated, even confusing - but no less exciting. If everything works out, the X-34s might help pioneer not just an emerging method of accessing space, but a new space-exploration business model, as well.

A Wednesday call to Orbital Sciences, the original manufacturers of the X-34, resulted in a brief conversation with a bemused company official. Barry Berneski, Orbital's communications director, said he had read the X-34 news, but had heard nothing on the subject from inside the firm. "They might be just trying get it out of Edwards' valuable real estate," Berneski said of the 59-foot-long space planes, only one of which ever flew - and just once - before the program was canceled on cost grounds in 2001.

In fact, real estate has been a factor in the X-34s' moves over the years, Dryden official Alan Brown said on Wednesday. After the program's termination, NASA transferred the space plane prototypes to the Air Force, "which thought it might use them but never did," Brown said. "When the Air Force needed room in the hangar, they [the X-34s] were moved to a bombing range and sat out there deteriorating for several years." The two bots luckily avoided getting bombed, and earlier this year NASA moved them back to its side of Edwards. "They were sitting there a while," Brown mused.

The idea to ship the X-34s to Mojave and inspect them originated with a Dryden-based NASA engineer, Brown said. "When he found out this thing still existed … he decided people should take a look to see if it could be refurbished and made flightworthy." That's when the contractors came to retrieve the two neglected spacecraft, pictured above en route to the Mojave.

But that doesn't mean NASA has formal plans to operate the X-34s under its own auspices, now or ever, Brown stressed. Provided they're in flyable shape, it's far more likely the space agency will make the X-34s available to private industry. "There are a number of firms interested in these things, developing communications and other technologies," Brown said. "It would be helpful if they had a vehicle."

Brown implied he was trying to downplay the X-34s' possible resurrection, but his reference to private industry hints at a far more exciting future for the space planes than would be likely in NASA service. After all, America's space future is looking increasingly privatized. In 2004, Scaled Composites boosted its Space Ship One vehicle to higher than 300,000 feet, proving that cheap, reusable, commercial vehicle could reach near-orbit - and potentially score huge profits from spacefaring tourists. And just this week, the Federal Aviation Administration issued the very first license for a commercial spacecraft to re-enter the atmosphere from orbit. The license will allow SpaceX to test, in December, an unmanned rocket vehicle designed for resupplying the International Space Station.

President Barack Obama's space policies entail "outsourc[ing] major components of the space program to private industry." With flyable X-34s at the ready, NASA could lend a hand to companies hoping to expand on Scaled's and SpaceX's achievements, and further open up space to explorers … and entrepreneurs. That's way cooler than just another government-only test program, if you ask us.

Photo: NASA


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