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The Tragic Tale of How NASA's X-34 Space Planes Ended Up Rotting In Someone's Backyard



The X-34 program was designed to help break NASA and the Air Force into space far more often and inexpensively than ever before. In the end, a pair of rocket plane demonstrators were built, but they have never been able to reach their full potential. Still, they have been part of a broader family of initiatives that have resulted in the X-37B mini-space plane of the Air Force, which has remained in orbit near continuously for years. But after the shine on the program, it quickly faded around the turn of the millennium, the unique craft found itself in increasingly dire straits, stuffed in a dilapidated hangar or another, or weathering the harsh desert climate in the open.

At times it seemed like the X-34s would get a second chance at life, being brought back from the dead for some exciting new space launch program, but this never materialized. Today, these historic vehicles do not sit in museums or as technical trainers for future aerospace engineers. Through a labyrinth of misfortune, they have found themselves rotting in someone's backyard in Lancaster, California, not far from their long-time home at Edwards Air Force Base.

Here's the fascinating, but tragic story of how the X-34s went from potential harbingers of America's future into space to unwanted backyard junk.

NASA kicked off the program that would lead to the unmanned X-34 in 1

996. The Marshall Space Flight Center, located within the US Army's Redstone Arsenal in Alabama was responsible for the project

The main goal was to develop a testbed that could help quickly test new technologies for a future low-cost reusable space vehicle. NASA

NASA

A major impetus for the program was the desire to lay the groundwork for a more advanced management system for fast track development and testing of advanced systems. space access platform that would be significantly cheaper than the Space Shuttle. NASA has sought to drop the price per pound of payload sent into orbit from $ 10,000 to $ 1,000, according to one official fact sheet.

In addition, a decade earlier, and a tragic accident resulted in the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and her entire crew, an event that had already prompted by both NASA and the US military to begin exploring alternative means of getting into orbit. After the disaster, NASA only took delivery of one additional Space Shuttle, Endeavor in 1991, specifically to replace Challenger .

Orbital Sciences Corporation subsequently received the contract to build what became known as the X-34. The company rolled out the first vehicle, known as the X-34A-1, on April 30, 1999, and subsequently delivered to the NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, now called the Armstrong Flight Research Center, located within the Edward Air Force Base in California

NASA

The X-34A-1 vehicle, which NASA described as a suborbital demonstrator, was just over 58 feet long and had a wingspan of almost 28 feet. It features a lightweight composite airframe and various features designed to enable repeated flights to and from space, including reusable fuel tanks and dedicated thermal protection for high-speed flight.

This vehicle has a GPS-assisted inertial navigation system and an automated system to monitor the status of its avionics and integrity of the vehicle, as as well as its general course and flight performance throughout its mission. NASA

The X-34A-1 airframe at the time of its delivery to NASA

However, at the beginning of a mission, the X-34 design would rely on a mothership aircraft to get it to the appropriate altitude. Once there, the vehicle would be separated from the carrier plane and then its Fastrac rocket engine would ignite, sending it to an altitude of about 264,000 feet and following a pre-programmed flight route

Engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center had developed the Fastrac, also known as the MC-1, in-house separately as part of a program to craft and a low-cost rocket engine.

NASA expected the pump-fed liquid fuel rocket engine to propel the X-34s to the hypersonic speeds of around Mach 8. The vehicle would be able to perform at least 25 complete missions

Orbital Science's stargazer mothership launcher aircraft, and modified Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, carried the X-34A-1 aloft for the first captive-carry flight on June 29, 1999. Two more captive-carry tests occurred on Sept. 3 and 14, 1999.

NASA

Stargazer carried the unpowered X-34A-1 during a captive-carry test in 1999.

Starting in July 2000, NASA conducted a series of unpowered ground tests where a tractor truck pulled and released the X-34A-1, allowing it to coast at various speeds. On July 20, 2000, the X-34A-1 rolled along at speeds of between five and 10 miles per hour in two separate runs. Four days later, another pair of tests saw the vehicle get up to speeds of 30 miles per hour.

At that time, NASA planned to conduct another six weeks of this kind of ground testing, getting the X-34A-1 up to 80 miles per hour. It is unclear whether this testing regimen proceeded as expected. That same year, the vehicle was supposed to make a total of 27 unpowered and powered test flights at the Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

NASA

The first X-34 during the test tests in 2000.

As NASA continued to test the X-34A-1, Orbital Sciences also built a second airframe known as the X-34A-2 . The plan was to send this example to the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where it would receive the Fastrac engine and go through a series of test firings, before moving on for flight testing at Dryden.

At Dryden, powered flight tests would see the X-34A-2 reach speeds around Mach 2 and then up to Mach 5. Additional powered flights would then occur at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA hoped to conduct an average of one flight test every 14 days and demonstrate the ability to have the vehicle turned around and ready for another mission within 24 hours

With the flight test data from the X-34A-1 and A- 2, NASA would then evaluate a third airframe, the X-34A-3 across the full planned flight envelope. There were plans for follow-on developments using the basic X-34 design as well. The original X-34A-1 itself received such extensive modifications that NASA sometimes referred to as the X-34A-1A

Originally, NASA had expected the X-34 to fall from the carrier plane and fire of a Rocketdyne RS- 56-OSA sustainer rocket engine, also found in the Atlas II space launch rocket, to fly to a high-suborbital position.

NASA

Technicians at Dryden make improvements to the X-34A-1 in 1999. [19659012] From the information available, NASA seems to have quickly abandoned this concept of operations for the three X-34As in favor of simplified suborbital design with Fastrac only. The eventual X-34 vehicles had no provision for a payload at all. However, there were plans for a larger, three-stage X-34B that would have required a Boeing 747 mothership.

The X-34B, along with the entire X-34 flight test program, never came to pass. Orbital Sciences has never completed the X-34A-3, either.

In 2000, NASA and Orbital Sciences, together, conducted and reviewed the program, its requirements, and testing schedule. The two parties concluded that there were significant risks in the test plan for the vehicle's various internal systems, in particular its avionics and automated landing system. The end goal for the X-34 was to be able to land autonomously and face it in the face of crosswinds with gusts of over 20 miles per hour, according to NASA

These risks have the potential for cost overruns and delays. Orbital Science's contract with NASA, worth almost $ 86 million, covered the design and fabrication of the X-34s. The company has put in its own money to modify the Stargazer, originally intended to lift the Pegasus series of air-launched rockets, so it could carry the new vehicle.

NASA

Stargazer carrying a Pegasus XL air-launched space vehicle

The money for testing, another $ 16 million by the end of 1999, has come through a separate joint effort between NASA and the US known as the Space Launch Initiative (SLI). SLI was a research and development project aimed at exploring a host of technologies related to reusable space launch systems and methods of enabling rapid access to space. SLI funded research into new rocket engines, reusable rocket boosters, and reusable space launch vehicles, such as the X-34, as well as the larger and significantly more complex single-stage-to-orbit Lockheed Martin X-33.

In 2001, NASA officially canceled the X-34 program, along with the X-33 project, to free up SLI funding for other higher priority work. We also do not know if this decision was partly due to redundancies or competing programs in the classified realm. It seems likely that NASA's greater success with the X-37A and X-40A programs was a contributing factor

Despite their nomenclatures, NASA began working on the unpowered X-40A first in 1998, with the craft serving as a testbed for the larger X-37A. Boeing derived the basic shape of both of these vehicles from the Space Shuttle.

NASA

From the left to right, the X-37A, the X-40A and one of the X-34As

The X-37's mission profile was also substantially less complicated than that of the X-34 and its mothership. The miniature space shuttle would instead go into space on top of a commercial launch rocket.

In 2004, NASA transferred the X-37A program to the U.S. military defense Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), after which it became a highly classified project. Two years later, the U.S. Air Force announced the start of development of an improved X-37B vehicle.

The service eventually built two X-37Bs and the program has been a major success since then. The pair of OTVs have safely completed four orbital missions, the longest of which, so far, saw the vehicle spend more than 700 days in space.

USAF

The first X-37B gets loaded into a payload shroud at

The exact mission sets of the X-37Bs remain cloudy, but they are still flying secretive missions today. One of the OTVs is in space right now on a fifth orbit flight that started in September 2017 and has already lasted more than 525 days.

The X-34s have not been so lucky. Back in 2002, NASA had put the two completed airframes along with the unfinished parts of the third vehicle and related equipment in storage at Edward's shadowy North Base installation.

The dilapidated hangar that held the two airframes was open and exposed to the elements, as well as birds and other animals. Our friend and aviation photographer Ashley Wallace managed to grab some pictures of them in this sorry state in 2007.

In 2004, the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced that it was looking into whether it could use the X-34s as engine testbeds to support the development of its own Dream Chaser reusable space vehicle, offering the possibility of a new life for largely forgotten vehicles. But despite SNC's interest, the vehicles remained in storage.

It's unclear why, but Dream Chaser, which is more similar in design to NASA's HL-20 Personnel Launch System concept, eventually ended up using the landing gear from one of these vehicles. During Dream Chaser's first free flight in October 2013, a portion of that gear failed.

Four years ago, NASA, still apparently interested in finding some use for the X-34s, had towed the two vehicles out to the Edwards' Precision Impact Range Area (PIRA), where they reportedly served as laser targeting practical targets for the Air Force. Out on the range, they were even more exposed to extreme shifts in temperature and poor weather. The spare parts and portions of the third airframe were steadily disposed of as waste and scrap as well.

Early in 2010, NASA attempted to remove them from the PIRA, but the effort ended up way through bad weather, leaving the vehicles on an access road until they eventually moved to another outdoor site at Dryden in May of that year . Then, in November 2010, NASA moved the X-34 vehicles from that base to the Mojave Air and Space Port. At that time, Orbital Sciences was reportedly looking to see if the vehicles were still viable test beds.

NASA

The X-34s on the way to Mojave in 2010.

The thought that the X-34s could be returned to the flight was exciting to aerospace enthusiasts and the move did make news and was the source of some public intrigue.

As of 2015, satellite imagery showed that the remains of the X-34s were still at what had become known by then as NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards. They were parked outside among the hulks of other disused test airframes that once operated out of the legendary installation. Around this same time, ownership of the X-34s was transferred from NASA to the Air Force

Google Earth

The two X-34s sit next to the Orbital Sciences Stargazer at the Mojave Air and Space Port in 2012. [19659061] Google Earth

The two X-34s, at the top, sitting in the open at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in 2015.

Armstrong Flight Test Center home , but that does not mean they are sitting proudly in museums or are being used by a technical school for training. Their current resting place is a residential backyard in rural Lancaster, California, some 25 miles from their previous home at Edwards Air Force Base

The X-34 story took a very bizarre turn in the last couple of years when the Air Force apparently donated the craft to a museum in Florida. The man who was the point of contact for the museum had to take possession of them, but it was not anywhere near logistically ready to move them across the country. This would be a major administrative and operational undertaking, as each state would require special permissions to move the wide loads through. We can only imagine what the bill would be to ship the 2,000 miles east would have been, but it would have been substantial

This is how they ended up in the back yard of the owner of Smith's Quickcrane Inc. With the individual in Florida totally unprepared for the complex and expensive shipping process, he asked the contractor that he had moved them off Edwards' grounds to store them for a very short amount of time while he quickly got his affairs in order. According to the owner of Smith's, who we talked on the phone, what was originally supposed to be a couple of weeks at most has turned into many, many months.

The Florida man has disappeared on them, leaving them with the space vehicles sitting in pieces in their yard. Then, whenever they tried to collect the contract or dispose of the vehicles, his lawyers would pop up and try to keep it from happening. Then, just as quickly as a contact had been made, that same legal counsel would inform them that they no longer represented the buyer of the X-34s

Back at square one

Clearly, the owners of Smith's Quickcrane aren 't happy about the situation and they just want to get paid and have the vehicles removed. But there they sit, a bizarre oddity that gawk at for anyone who drives down their road. Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com

Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com

Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com

Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com

Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com

Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com

Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com

Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com .com

Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com

Matt Hartman / Shorealonefilms.com

The craft, which was not in great condition to begin with, with their internals exposed in that yard for some time now. Their overall condition looks as if it has deteriorated substantially and who knows what has been taken off by them by thieves. Still, at the very least, they could be used as props to support the nearby movie making industry and it's not like there are not places nearby that deal in just those kind of services.

It remains unclear who actually holds the title to these craft or if there is even some sort of title to hold. We find it odd that the Air Force has not stepped in to remove the craft or find them a new home. If these crafts were donated, the recipient clearly did not hold their end of the bargain. Frankly, it seems strange that no museum in the region would have taken them in the first place.

We reached the Air Force for comment, but at the time of writing, we did not receive a response. We will make sure to update this post when we hear back.

In the meantime, the X-34s, a craft that cost many millions of dollars and once looked as potentially transformational when it comes to developing faster, cheaper access to space, now sit rotting in the most unexpected and undignified of places. It's a sad end to what's been a fairly sad life.

Contact the authors: Tyler@thedrive.com and J trevithickpr@gmail.com

Editor's note: A very special thanks to our good friend and contributor Matt Hartman of Shorealonefilms.com Do not forget to sign up


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