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Will the Air Force Finally Get a Spaceplane?

If Boeing's X-37 can maneuver politically as well as in space.

The slenderizing of the trailing edges is a rare instance in which the X-37 has slimmed down. Program managers decided to control costs by using more off-the-shelf hardware than originally planned, and as a result, the vehicle grew heavier. Then in the early spring of 2001, the management team determined that the goals of atmospheric and orbital testing weren’t as compatible as the team had first believed. The managers redefined the program’s goals, confining the X-37, like the X-40, to atmospheric tests.

In 2004, the X-37 will be dropped from a B-52 at 50,000 feet to demonstrate landing and descent. Boeing is still hoping to interest NASA in a second X-37 for orbital tests as part of the agency’s Space Launch Initiative, a program whose goal is to pave the way for new reusable launchers that would carry hardware and astronauts into orbit. SLI is being restructured, however, and NASA is studying a number of options.

Whether the X-37 will ever reach orbit has become more of a political question than a technological one. The X-37 program was helped into life by a Congressional maneuver. Congress, anticipating trouble with NASA’s X-33 single-stage-to-orbit program, added funding to the agency’s 1998 appropriations to study alternative approaches to reusable launchers. The following year, the House of Representatives earmarked $20 million for NASA’s participation in the Military Space Plane, reinvigorating a program that President Bill Clinton had killed with a line-item veto. The X-37 was the result of a Congressional effort to keep the Military Space Plane alive and its directive to explore alternatives to the roubled X-33. (NASA later canceled the X-33 program.)

Can This Marriage Be Saved?
The contract to develop the X-37 included Boeing’s agreement to pay approximately 50 percent of the cost. The government’s share included $16 million from the Air Force and the rest from NASA. The estimated cost of building and testing the vehicle ballooned from $173 million, which was to have paid for two orbital flights, to $234 million, which covers no orbital flights. But in August 2001, Air Force Secretary James Roche decided to hold the Air Force contribution at $16 million. “If it has no maneuverability because of weight growth, then you can’t demonstrate the concept of maneuverability,” says Colonel Mike Wolfert, a strategist in the programs and plans office at the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs.

Wolfert is the team leader of a joint NASADepartment of Defense panel convened to determine how the two agencies could cooperate in the future on spaceplane research. “In the past we’ve [demanded] too integrated a vehicle, and all we’ve done is set ourselves up for failure,” says Wolfert.

Kevin Neifert, Boeing’s director for nextgeneration launch systems at the Phantom Works, represented industry’s point of view on the panel, which conducted a 120-day study. He believes the Air Force and NASA could collaborate on spaceplane research. “Everybody needs thermal protection systems; everybody needs autonomous control and advanced propulsion,” he says.

Former Congressional staff member James Muncy isn’t so sure. As a legislative assistant to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and a staff member on the House Science Committee, he watched in frustration as the Air Force’s X-40 developed into NASA’s X-37. “The Air Force lost the operational concept from the program and it became a pure technology demonstrator because that’s what NASA likes to build,” he says.

Will the Air Force get its spaceplane?

The current administration is much friendlier to the idea of a military spaceplane than the former was. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is presiding over what he calls a “transformation” in the armed services, a modernization process that includes developing weapons for space. Rumsfeld, while still in the private sector, led the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, which, in its January 2001 report, warned of a “Space Pearl Harbor” and called for “power projection in, from and through space” and greater funding for these new capabilities. The report seemed to endorse Air Force spending for a Space Maneuver Vehicle as well as a follow-on Space Operations Vehicle, a larger spacecraft that would fly to a location in orbit and dispense a new breed of yet-to-be-developed, conventionally armed bombs.

The Final Battlefield
The concept of space warfare, however, still has opponents both inside and outside the Department of Defense. The NASA-Air Force 120-day-study team has not released its findings because spaceplane proponents fear the multi-billion-dollar estimates alone could sink a proposal for a Space Maneuver Vehicle, according to one Air Force official. Boosting spaceplanes into orbit would be a costly way to wage war. The Space Maneuver Vehicles would lack the powerful engines required to reach orbit, so at least initially they would have to be launched atop expendable rockets, which can cost more than $100 million each. That is more than twice as much as the cost of building a single next-generation Joint Strike Fighter, which would fly hundreds of sorties. The Air Force is an enormous organization with many factions, not all of them marching in lockstep behind Rumsfeld’s flag of transformation, and many leaders believe the risk inherent in spaceflight is still too great.

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