NASA's X-34 program was initiated in 1996 to provide a low-cost advanced technology flight demonstration test bed vehicle for space access and to demonstrate a streamlined management approach with a rapid development schedule and limited testing.
Initiated and managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, the program's objective was to build and demonstrate a space access vehicle with greater reliability than was currently available, while reducing the cost of launching payloads into orbit from $10,000 per pound to about $1,000 per pound.
X-34 Advanced Technology Demonstrator on NASA Dryden ramp NASA Photo by Tony Landis. To accomplish this, the craft had several unique features: lightweight composite airframe structures; reusable composite propellant tanks, tank insulation; advanced thermal protection systems capable of surviving subsonic flights through inclement weather; integrated low-cost avionics, including differential Global Positioning System and Inertial Navigation System; and integrated automated vehicle health monitoring and checkout.
A completely new rocket motor, the reusable Fastrac engine, was to be the X-34's power. It was designed and developed by Marshall Space Flight Center engineers and built by NASA's industry partners.
The unmanned X-34 was expected to fly at speeds up to eight times the speed of sound and reach altitudes of approximately 50 miles before descending to a controlled landing on a runway, similar to landings performed by the space shuttles. Three airframes were planned, designated A-1, A-2, and A-3, but only two airframes were completed before the project was canceled.
Following initial testing by the builder, the first X-34 arrived at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA, in the late 1990s to begin a series of captive-carry and unpowered flights that would lead to actual powered test flights. The craft was to have an automatic landing system, linked to GPS, enabling it to fly a mission profile and land itself.
The first X-34 captive carry flight, using Orbital Sciences Corporation's Lockheed L-1011 as the mothership, took place on June 29, 1999. NASA and its partner completed two more captive-carry flights later that same year. The vehicle never flew again.
A joint NASA/Orbital Sciences Corporation review of the project in 2000 revealed the need to redefine the project's approach, scope, budget and schedule. Among risks identified were inadequate system testing, single-string avionics, and the lack of auto-land validation. To ensure safety and mission success of the X-34 would have required increased government technical insight, hardware testing and integrated systems assessments.
X-34 Advanced Technology Demonstrator mated with the L-1011 mothership. As a result, the projected cost of completing the X-34 program at an acceptable level of risk rose significantly above the planned budget. NASA determined that the benefits to be derived from continuing the X-34 program did not justify the cost, and that Space Launch Initiative (SLI) funds should be applied to higher priority needs.
In March 2001 NASA announced that no funds for the X-34 program under the SLI would be provided, and the cooperative agreement between NASA and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., for the X-34 program expired on March 31, 2001. The two completed X-34s and components for the third vehicle were transferred in 2002 to the U.S. Air Force and placed in long-term storage pending use for potential future testing or display at the Edwards Air Force Base museum.
X-34 Specifications & Features:
Length: 58.3 feet
Wingspan: 27.7 feet
Weight unfueled: 18,000 lb
Fuel: LOX/RP-1, 30,000 lb
Main propulsion: 1 Marshall-designed Fastrac engine
Thrust: 60,000 lb
Maximum speed: Mach 8
Maximum altitude: approximately 50 miles
All composite primary and secondary structure
Autonomous flight control, including approach and landing