Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right or below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
NASA’s recent flight test of an experimental vehicle capable of hypersonic flight was an engineering triumph, but it also could turn out to be another in a long list of the agency’s bureaucratic failures.
Last Tuesday, the X-43 test program made its third and last flight — the first had failed when the Pegasus launch rocket went out of control while the second reached Mach 6.8 — using a scramjet engine to achieve a record-breaking speed of Mach 9.6. It was a breathtaking success, which — in a stark demonstration of NASA’s standard operating procedure — immediately resulted in the program’s shutdown.
The scramjet has proven a decades-old theory: If an engine can move fast enough through the high atmosphere, the shape of its intake nozzle alone could compress the oxygen in the air densely enough to ignite and burn the fuel. Turbine fans and moving parts become unnecessary.
Ordinary jet engines use turbines to compress the oxygen in the lower atmosphere. At higher altitudes, however, the air is too thin for jets to collect it efficiently, so rocket engines, which carry their own oxygen, must be used.
During the X-43 test, NASA engineers were able not only to use the scramjet to reach Mach 9.6 — about 6,600 miles per hour — but they also were able to keep it operating for 11 seconds.
“(This test time) dwarfs the amount of data we have been able to collect from all (previous) tests combined,” said Randy Voland Sr., lead propulsion engineer from the Langley Research Center in Virginia. “What we get in a ground test is just a few milliseconds at a time.”
Though the military has several follow-up scramjet programs in the works, at the moment the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has no plans to develop this new technology. Nor is a cancellation like this unusual for the agency.
For example, in the late 1960s, NASA had a program to develop lifting bodies, proving these bathtub-shaped gliders could be used to return astronauts and cargo from space. Though the shuttle program inherited some of this research, there was little other follow-up.
In 1970, NASA orbited an ion-engine satellite, SERT 2, and successfully used that concept to raise the satellite’s orbit 50 miles over a six-month period, followed by more tests over six more years. Then, for the next 20 years NASA did nothing with the technology. When the follow-up finally occurred, it was just another test flight, Deep Space I in 1998, from which the engineering results never have been used.
There also was the string of X-projects in the late 1990s, including the X-34 and X-33.
The X-34 was a two-stage, reusable, sub-orbital spacecraft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. Despite its obvious fit with the Ansari X-Prize — which was awarded last month for the first privately built spacecraft that could achieve sub-orbital flight twice within two weeks — NASA canceled the program in 2001 and the hardware was mothballed, with no further development.
The X-33 included a radical new aerospike engine, built and successfully tested by Lockheed Martin. Yet, when the program was canceled because of problems with its super-light fuel tanks, there was no effort to continue the engine’s development.
These instances represent only a small sampling.
The question is not whether more money should have been poured into these NASA programs, but rather why do the agency’s research efforts often fail to receive a follow-up?
One possible explanation is no one owns the technology, either legally or in spirit. In this sense, the situation is reminiscent of the old Soviet Union. There, the space bureaucracy would develop some clever innovation, which would then die unused because no one had the right to benefit from it.
All of the past NASA programs were created by and for NASA. For example, the chief contractor for the X-43 — ATK of Edina, Minn. — essentially was NASA’s hired hand. They had not conceived or designed the project. Leadership came from NASA’s engineers at Langley and at the Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., which is why ATK kept such a low profile during the flight and all the credit went to NASA.
Though ATK now could follow through with a scramjet project, such an approach does not fit its corporate culture. As a typical contractor for both the military and NASA, ATK is more adapted to bidding on the government’s ideas rather than pushing one of its own on the private market. Moreover, because ATK got so little publicity for the X-43 flight, it could be difficult for it to sell the idea to anyone else.
Compare this situation to Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., which conceived, designed and built the X-Prize winner, SpaceShipOne, and thus got all the publicity for its success. Rutan was able immediately to leverage both the publicity and his company’s proven skills to obtain financing from Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic to build a more advanced design.
Another possible reason NASA programs tend to wither on the vine is their technologies often are extremely cutting edge and therefore have no immediate application. Both the scramjet and aerospike engines no doubt have a future in reusable orbital spacecraft, but there are no programs or projects existing at this time that can afford them.
Some might argue, fairly, it is NASA’s job to test such radical engineering concepts, because no one else will, and then leave their actual use to others.
Yet, if no else picks up the ball, then the research effort by NASA ends up largely wasted. Rather than spend a fortune on unconventional technologies no one needs, NASA might be better served by encouraging the development of more useful aerospace technologies that can be put to immediate use.
Even when there is a follow-up, NASA’s approach does not seem to encourage American companies to do it. For example, why was the use of the ion engine, which NASA pioneered, left to the European Space Agency, which just placed its SMART-1 space probe into orbit around the moon, propelled there solely by its xenon-ion engine?
This sad track record at NASA finally might be forcing a change. Just one day before the X-43’s final flight, the agency held a small, unheralded event at its headquarters in Washington. There, a crowd of private companies and individuals — including Peter Diamandis of the Ansari X-Prize Foundation in St. Louis and David Gump of t/Space in Menlo Park, Calif. — gathered to hear the space agency describe a new way of doing business, dubbed the Centennial Challenge Awards and clearly inspired by the success of the X-Prize.