Fact Sheet #2
The Policy Origins of the X-33
Part II: The NASA Access to Space Study
September 23, 1998
This is the second of a continuing series of historical fact sheets on the origins
of NASA's X-33 program. The X-33 is a technology demonstrator for NASA's "next
generation" of space launch vehicle. It will flight test a range of technologies
needed for single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicles, such as thermal protection
systems, composite cryogenic fuel tanks, and the aerospike engine. Test flights are
scheduled to begin in July 1999. Eventually, based on the X-33 experience shared
with NASA, Lockheed Martin hopes to build a commercial single-stage-to-orbit reusable
launch vehicle, called VentureStar, largely at its own expense. In the future, rather
than operate space transport systems as it has with the Space Shuttle, NASA will
purchase launch services from Lockheed Martin and other commercial launch providers.
The decision to design and build the X-33 grew out of a NASA study titled "Access
to Space." Unlike other space transport studies, "Access to Space"
resulted in the design and construction of a vehicle. The period preceding the "Access
to Space" study is the subject of the first fact sheet, titled "The Policy
Origins of the X-33." This second fact sheet deals with the specific chain of
events that led to the creation of the "Access to Space" study, as well
as the organization of the study. It focuses in particular on the so-called Option
3 team within the "Access to Space" study and on the role played by an
experimental program run by the Strategic Defense Initiative Office (SDIO) of the
Department of Defense. The conclusions and recommendations of the "Access to
Space" study, and initial reactions within NASA, are the subject of the following
Cheaper Access to Space
NASA's "Access to Space" study responded to budgetary questions raised
during hearings held January through March, 1992, by the House Subcommittee on Space,
of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, on the space agency's budget
for fiscal 1993 (October 1, 1992, through September 30, 1993). The hearings took
place in an atmosphere of fiscal and political uncertainty about the future of NASA's
space program. In the words of the Subcommittee chair, the Hon. Ralph M. Hall (Dem-TX),
"It is difficult to hold these hearings without recognizing that this is a time
of great turmoil for NASA and the space program. ... We simply have to recognize
that people today are less interested in going to Mars and more concerned about their
trip to the grocery store."
Dominating the Subcommittee on Space hearings was a desire to cut NASA's budget.
The Bush Administration wanted to "freeze" NASA and other discretionary
spending levels. The space agency, however, had several costly new and existing programs
in the works. Among these were Space Station Freedom and the Space Exploration Initiative,
a grandiose plan to construct a permanent lunar base and to land an astronaut on
Mars, in addition to a handful of space science undertakings, such as the Cassini
mission to Saturn. At the same time, NASA also was carrying out two major launch
vehicle programs jointly with the Department of Defense, namely, the National Launch
System (NLS) and the National AeroSpace Plane (NASP). Three versions of the NLS expendable
launcher were planned, with each capable of performing distinct tasks. For NASA,
the NLS was to launch heavy payloads to support the Space Station, as well as a multitude
of solar system missions, but also could be modified to support a return to the Moon
and human exploration of Mars. NASP, also known as the X-30, was to be a reusable
space vehicle powered by air-breathing engines. Some research carried out under the
NASP program led to important advancements, such as the development of lighter, high-strength
composite airframe materials, that play a key part in NASA's current reusable launch
These NASA space transport and exploration programs guaranteed that the space
agency's budget would not just grow, but mushroom, as Congress pondered cutting the
federal budget. Over the course of January through March of 1992, the House Subcommittee
on Space heard testimony from NASA, the Department of Defense, and independent witnesses
in its search to cut the space agency's budget. But where? The Space Station and
the Space Shuttle came under their share of fire, as did the National Launch System
(NLS) and the National AeroSpace Plane (NASP). Space transport was needed to launch
NASA's spacecraft, to build and supply Space Station Freedom, and, in short, to enable
NASA to conduct the business of exploring space and planet Earth. However, the cost
of putting payloads into space accounted for a major share of NASA's budget. The
cost of getting into space had to come down. But how?
The House Subcommittee on Space hearings did not answer that question. Nor was
the NASA Administrator in a position to tackle the question. Over the course of the
Subcommittee hearings, the NASA Administrator since July 1, 1989, Richard H. Truly,
resigned his position, and on April 1, 1992, Daniel S. Goldin, a TRW vice president
in charge of satellite systems, was sworn in as the new NASA Administrator. Goldin
wanted to reform NASA. A growing group of engineers, scientists, and managers had
been urging the White House to shake up the NASA space program. The phrase "cheaper,
faster, better" was their battle cry. Goldin soon made their motto his motto.
The NASA Administrator sought ways to respond to Congressional budget concerns,
and to cut the NASA budget perhaps as much as thirty percent. On May 19, 1992, following
a senior management meeting, Goldin ordered the creation of a set of six pairs of
Red and Blue teams under Acting Deputy Administrator Aaron Cohen, who was responsible
for general oversight of the teams, and Assistant Deputy Administrator (and former
astronaut) Charles Bolden, who saw to day-to-day team operations. An "integration
team," led by Michael Griffin, the Associate Administrator for Exploration,
had the task of combining the team results into a coherent whole.
The six areas covered by the Red and Blue teams were designated Aeronautics,
Remote Sensing, Access to Space, Human Presence in Space, Robotic Exploration, and
Moon and Mars Exploration. Six NASA Headquarters associate administrators headed
the Blue teams, while the leaders of the six parallel Red teams were selected from
among knowledgeable NASA center directors and deputy directors, not from Headquarters.
The job of the Red Team was to play devil's advocate to the Blue Team in each of
the six areas under study. The Access to Space Blue Team was headed by Jeremiah Pearson,
while H. Lee Beach, Jr., NASA Langley's deputy director, led the corresponding Red
Between May and November 1, 1992, the Red and Blue teams inquired into waste,
mismanagement, and duplication as well as other ways to pare back the NASA budget.
The teams presented a preliminary report and recommendations in June 1992, then reported
again in August, before submitting a final report in November. The Red and Blue team
studies contributed to a string of "major initiatives and activities" heralded
by NASA's Goldin. For example, on September 17, 1992, he announced that the Space
Access Blue Team had recommended changes to the National Launch System (NLS) program,
which had been coordinated with the Department of Defense. These changes included
a reassessment of facilities needed for the program, and acceleration of vehicle
Soon after that announcement, however, on September 24, 1992, the House conference
committee that had been struggling with the NASA fiscal 1993 budget issued its report.
The report "recognize[d] the continuing and increasing difficulties confronting
the agency and its role in the Nation's space program." These problems, according
to the conference committee report, arose from the conflict between the desire to
reduce the budget immediately and in future years and the number and expense of NASA
missions already authorized and initiated. The report, therefore, ordered NASA to
undertake a study of the Space Station Freedom program and "other national space
"This study," the conference committee report charged, "should
be conducted in close coordination with the Department of Defense, and with other
participating agencies of the National Space Council. The review should also thoroughly
assess national space launch requirements, potential alternatives and strategies
to address such needs, and make recommendations on improvements in the utilization
of limited budgetary resources after revalidating both civilian and defense requirements.
The report should be submitted to the appropriate committees of the Congress by March
31, 1993 [subsequently extended to July 1993], to permit formulation of multi-year
Although the conference committee report appeared in late September, 1992, and
NASA's Red and Blue teams entered the second phase of their work in November, 1992,
it was not clear how much longer Daniel Goldin would remain head of the space agency.
The NASA administrator is an appointee of the President of the United States. Depending
on the outcome of the presidential elections that took place in November, 1992, Goldin
might be replaced in January 1993, before he had a chance to initiate any substantial
reforms. Nonetheless, the newly elected President and Vice President chose to keep
Goldin as head of the space agency. Now, the reforms, and the Congressionally mandated
study of "national space launch requirements," could be put into motion.
The "Access to Space" Study
On January 7, 1993, within weeks of the new President's inauguration, Daniel
Goldin announced the establishment of a detailed study of "national space launch
requirements" called "Access to Space." The study was to focus on
future access to space, analyze national needs, and develop various options for addressing
those needs. Goldin appointed Arnold D. Aldrich, NASA Associate Administrator for
Space Systems Development, to head the effort. Assisting him was Michael D. Griffin,
Associate Administrator for Exploration, who had headed the integration of the Red
and Blue Team studies. Aldrich and Griffin then proceeded to organize the "Access
to Space" study through January and into mid-February 1993.
As organized by Aldrich and Griffin, the "Access to Space" study attempted
to develop a comprehensive model of a launch system that would serve the needs of
not just NASA, but the Department of Defense and the commercial launch industry as
well, for the period between 1995 through 2030. The premise behind the "Access
to Space" study was that the cost of putting payloads in orbit was too expensive;
operations were too expensive and too complex; launchers were insufficiently reliable
and safe; and the U.S. was not competitive enough in the international commercial
launch market. The launch systems studied by the "Access to Space" teams
would have to meet cost and performance criteria spelled out in advance. The "Access
to Space" study was charged with recommending both a long-term direction and
a near-term plan of action for the U.S. launch system that was consistent with the
shrinking NASA and federal budget as well as with NASA program requirements. Cutting
the cost of getting into space was the study's bottom line.
Aldrich and Griffin divided launch system alternatives into three categories,
called options. In Option 1, the U.S. would continue to rely primarily on the Space
Shuttle, which would be upgraded, and the current fleet of rocket launchers. The
Option 1 study focused on three levels of Space Shuttle technological improvements;
each level represented more radical change than the preceding, going from retrofit
to the building of a new shuttle.
Option 2 considered four expendable launcher architectures. All four assumed
that Delta rockets would continue to launch smaller payloads, while three assumed
a replacement for the Atlas rocket which was used to lift medium payloads. In all
four cases, alternatives to the Space Shuttle and the Titan rocket, the nation's
most powerful launchers, were sought. In some ways, Option 2 continued the launcher
design studies started under the National Launch System (NLS) program.
Option 3 was the most ambitious part of the "Access to Space" study.
It considered the creation of a "next-generation" launch system using advanced
technologies. The novel launchers examined in the Option 3 study would be powered
by either rocket engines, like conventional missiles, or by air-breathing engines,
such as the scramjet under development for the National AeroSpace Plane (NASP). Indeed,
the NASP architecture was one of those appraised by the Option 3 team. Both single-stage
and two-stage vehicles were looked at, and all three alternative architectures were
Aldrich and Griffin proposed that a separate, independent team be assembled for
each option study. The 23-member Option 3 team consisted of NASA personnel and three
representatives from the Department of Defense, namely, the Air Force Space and Missiles
Center, the Air Force Phillips Laboratory, and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.
Of the twenty NASA delegates, half came from the Langley Research Center and the
Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA Headquarters, the Lewis Research Center, and the
Johnson Research Center were represented by two Option 3 members, while the Kennedy
Space Center and the Dryden Flight Research Facility had one representative each.
In addition, a steering group, headed by Aldrich and Griffin and selected in
January 1993, periodically reviewed the work of the three study teams. Members of
the steering group came from NASA Headquarters and several of the centers, as well
as the Department of Defense, in compliance with the House conference committee mandate
to conduct the "Access to Space" study "in close coordination with
the Department of Defense." The cost and performance results obtained by the
three study teams would be assessed against common evaluation criteria, then a preferred
option would be selected and a plan of action recommended. In the fall of 1993, the
NASA Administrator, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and
the Office of Management and Budget would be briefed, and a final report delivered
to Congress in January 1994.
In mid-February, Aldrich and Griffin briefed Daniel Goldin on the organization
of the "Access to Space" study. The NASA Administrator gave his approval
to begin the study. Work began immediately and continued into July, when the three
option teams turned in their "final" reports. The work of the Option 3
team turned out to be a critical step in the evolution of what eventually became
the X-33 program. Prominent in the Option 3 study was the influence of a Department
of Defense program that, unlike the NLS and NASP, was not being carried out jointly
with NASA. That program bore the generic name Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO), and it
belonged to a new Pentagon organization, the Strategic Defense Initiative Office
(SDIO), now known as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO).
The SDIO issued a concise "Statement of Work for the SSTO Technology Demonstration"
to industry in July 1990. After acquiring a budget line of $60 million, the SDIO
initiated a three phase project. In Phase I, four aerospace contractors carried out
design studies, then submitted proposals for the design of a vehicle and for operational
testing. Phase II saw the construction and operations testing of the vehicle. A full-scale
version would be built and flown in Phase III. The Phase II contract was awarded
to McDonnell Douglas Aerospace (now Boeing) on August 16, 1991.
McDonnell Douglas named the vehicle the Delta Clipper-Experimental (DC-X). The
name honored the firm's successful Thor/Delta rocket and recalled the famous 19th-century
commercial clipper ships. The McDonnell Douglas SSTO team saw the Delta Clipper as
opening the "space trade routes in the same way that the Yankee Clipper ships
opened the sea trade routes." The needs of the commercial launch industry thus
were integral to the thinking of the McDonnell Douglas DC-X team.
What was key to the thinking of the SDIO SSTO team, however, was operations.
The DC-X was not intended to be a technology demonstrator, but to show the practicality,
reliability, operability, and cost efficiency of a reusable, single-stage-to-orbit
flight vehicle by demonstrating aircraft-like operability and maintainability of
the DC-X. These aircraft-like operations included rapid turnaround between flights,
small operating crews, and simple launch facilities.
In early 1992, as the House Subcommittee on Space was holding hearings on the
NASA fiscal 1993 budget, the DC-X had yet to be tested. It would not make its first
flight at White Sands, New Mexico, until August 18, 1993, after the three "Access
to Space" study teams submitted their July reports. However, the completed vehicle
rolled out of its Huntington Beach, California, hangar on April 3, 1993. Its existence,
nonetheless, went almost unnoticed by the House Subcommittee on Space. The exception
was the questioning put to Arnold Aldrich, then NASA Associate Administrator for
the Office of Space Systems Development, by the Hon. Dana Rohrabacher (Rep-CA), who
represented Huntington Beach, California. Rohrabacher asked: "Do you see that
there may be an application [for SSTO]? If SSTO turns out to be what they hope it
will be, do you see that as a potential technology that could help supply the Space
Station?" Aldrich admitted that he had "not studied it in any depth,"
but pointed out that the DC-X was "keyed to very small payloads...but are probably
not of a category in any version of the current concept that would relate to the
heavy cargoes we were just talking about with respect to logistics for [Space Station]
Nonetheless, the SDIO SSTO program had an impact on the report of the "Access
to Space" Option 3 team. That impact was apparent in the Option 3 team recommendation
that the DC-X be used as a technology testbed, following team discussions with McDonnell
Douglas and SDIO. Specifically, the Option 3 team advocated the DC-X as a ground
and flight test vehicle for a range of advanced technology and operations concepts,
such as structures and materials (e.g., reusable cryogenic tanks), thermal protection
systems, avionics, and operations. Interestingly, when NASA took made the DC-X part
of its reusable launch vehicle program as the DC-XA, the space agency used it as
a testbed for many of these same technologies.
Members of the Option 3 team visited the McDonnell Douglas hangar at Huntington
Beach and the White Sands, New Mexico, "launch complex." Instead of a typical
NASA launch pad, with an army of technicians and an array of monitors and controls,
they saw an elementary launch pad, a modest control center housed in a mobile trailer,
and a lean launch crew. One of the program's goals was to minimize the time between
flights, with perhaps as little as 24 hours between flights. In contrast, the Space
Shuttle required an army of technicians and several weeks to prepare it for flight.
The Option 3 team also learned about the SDIO program's "faster, cheaper, better"
management principles. Those operations and management ideas later became an integral
part of the X-33 program, but more immediately they permeated the Option 3 July report.
The Option 3 team's exposure to the SDIO SSTO program proved pivotal in other
ways, too. That program convinced members of the Option 3 team that reusable single-stage-to-orbit
vehicles were technologically feasible. Team members who became convinced included
Robert E. "Gene" Austin, Stephen A. Cook, and Stephen D. Creech, all of
whom later joined the X-33 program team. Among those convincing the NASA team members
was Col. Gary Payton. Payton had headed the SSTO program at SDIO, before attending
Air War College. He stayed aware of SSTO developments while in school, and even participated
in a design review. Later, as an Air Force member of the Option 3 team, Payton wrote
parts of the team's July report, and eventually he left the Air Force to run NASA's
reusable launch vehicle program.
But NASA's reusable launch vehicle program was still in the future, as were the
first flights of the DC-X, when the "Access to Space" Option 3 team turned
in its "final" report in July, 1993. That report demonstrated the extent
to which the Option 3 team was convinced of the practicality of, and need for, reusable
launch vehicles. Moreover, the operations and management ideas so central to the
SDIO SSTO now permeated the Option 3 report and its conclusions.
The Advanced Technology Team Study
In July 1993, the Option 3 team, known within the "Access to Space"
study as the Advanced Technology Team, turned in their detailed four-volume final
report. The language of the report's introduction reflected the "Access to Space"
study's overall search for lower-cost launch vehicles and called for the creation
of a "new generation" of launch vehicles specifically to lower the cost
of getting into space.
The Option 3 report focused on operations, especially the streamlining of vehicle
processing for flight, mission planning, and flight execution. "Airline-like
operations" was more than a buzzword; it was reflected in the attention the
Option 3 team paid to actual aircraft, such as the SR-71 spy plane, the F-22 fighter,
and commercial jets, such as the Boeing 777. These aircraft served as "benchmarks"
on which to base approaches to design, operations, and management. The emphasis on
operations filled the Option 3 report: "Every aspect of the program must improve
operations... Technology investment must focus on improved operations." The
report also called for "a culture change in launch vehicle development, certification,
and operations management." The report's call for "a culture change"
and new "management philosophies," in addition to the emphasis on "airline-like"
operations and lower-cost access to space, all became keystones of the X-33 program.
The Option 3 team also examined which technologies would be needed to create
a series of entirely new fully reusable launchers, both single and double stage vehicles
powered by rocket or air-breathing engines. The Option 3 team also recommended a
timetable and strategy for implementing a program of technology development, and
vehicle design, construction, and flight testing that drew on a survey of government
and industry, and lessons learned from existing programs and organizations.
The proposed program of technology development and flight testing of an experimental
vehicle were not created out of thin air, but rather drew upon actual aeronautical
and aerospace experiences. In order to test these new technologies, the Option 3
team proposed several potential technology testbeds. Reusable launch vehicle technologies
such as engine improvements, thermal protection systems, electrical power generation,
guidance and navigation, and vehicle health maintenance systems could be flight tested
on the Space Shuttle, the National AeroSpace Plane, or the DC-X.
The Option 3 team report urged, moreover, that the study of advanced technology
concepts started under the "Access to Space" study be continued "through
more detailed inhouse studies....The interchange between the Option 3 team and industry
should continue to assure an understanding of operations driven requirements and
cost savings resulting from a program of technology maturation, full scale development,
production, and operations." The Option 3 report, moreover, called for the team
to not just formulate a technology development program, but to go one step further
and become its advocate.
The team's enthusiasm for reusable single-stage-to-orbit vehicles was apparent.
However, the Option 3 team did not call for an immediate "down-selection"
of a new vehicle configuration. Instead, their report stated, "Comprehensive
vehicle design trade studies should be initiated, however, along with an associated
technology maturation program." This maturation program "should utilize
a fast-track management approach that would involve the development of flight experiments
and experimental, or "X," vehicles." Then, separated from the rest
of the text, and in italics, for emphasis: "The bottom line is this: operability
must not be simply a goal; it must be a design driver."
The Option 3 team zeal was unmistakable. However, their report was only one of
three turned in by "Access to Space" option teams in July 1993. The steering
group assessed these reports in August, then turned them into a coherent set of observations,
conclusions, and recommendations. Members of the steering group then briefed the
NASA Administrator, Congress, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy,
and the Office of Management and Budget. These briefings, and the enthusiasm of the
Option 3 team, helped to pave the way for the creation of the X-33 program. The results
of the "Access to Space" study, and initial reactions within NASA, are
the subject of the next fact sheet.