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June 4, 1997

Michael Braukus
Headquarters, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/358-1979)

James Hartsfield
Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
(Phone: 281/483-5111)

Release: 97-121

In July First X-38 Atmospheric Vehicle to Begin Flight Tests

The first X-38 atmospheric test vehicle, which carries applications for future space vehicles, was shipped today from the Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, to the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA, to begin unpiloted flight tests in July.

The X-38 represents an innovative new spacecraft design as a technology testbed, with possible use as an International Space Station emergency crew return "lifeboat."

Once operational, the successors to the X-38 may become the first new piloted spacecraft to travel to and from orbit in more than 20 years, and the X-38 is being developed at a fraction of the cost of past human space vehicles.

The primary application of the new spacecraft would be as an International Space Station "lifeboat," which would be delivered to the station by the Space Shuttle. The project also aims to develop a design that could be modified easily for other uses, such as a possible joint U.S. and European human spacecraft that could be launched on the French Ariane 5 booster.

"Beginning full-scale flight tests is a big milestone for us that our team has been looking forward to with a lot of excitement," said X-38 project manager John Muratore. "No one has ever done anything like this before - deploying a parafoil from a lifting body and flying a lifting body with an all-electric flight control system - and there are unknowns. We expect surprises. But we have done a lot of work to minimize the unknowns, and we are confident this vehicle can perform well."

The atmospheric test vehicle, designated vehicle 131, is the first of three sub-scale vehicles largely built at Johnson planned for such testing. The unpiloted flight testing will begin at Dryden with "captive carry" flights, during which the vehicle remains attached to the NASA B-52 aircraft, in July and early August.

The first free-flight drop test of the vehicle, in which it will be released at an altitude of 25,000 feet, is planned for late August. Similar free-flight drop testing will continue at Dryden periodically through late 1999. An unpiloted space flight test is scheduled for launch aboard a Space Shuttle in the spring of 2000. The X-38 space flight test vehicle also will be built largely at Johnson.

The X-38 is being developed with an unprecedented eye toward efficiency, taking advantage of available equipment and already-developed technology for as much as 80 percent of the spacecraft's design. The design uses a lifting body concept originally developed by the Air Force’s X-24A project in the mid-1970s. Following the jettison of a deorbit engine module, the X-38 would glide from orbit unpowered like the Space Shuttle and then use a steerable parafoil parachute for its final descent to landing.

In the early years of the International Space Station, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be attached to the station as a crew return vehicle. As the size of the station crew increases, however, a return vehicle like the X-38 that can accommodate up to six passengers will be needed.


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