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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 fact sheet.

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 vehicle program.

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. Figure 1 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 Team.

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 development.

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 requirements."

"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 program plans."

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 fully reusable. Figure 2

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. Figure 3

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. Figure 4

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 DC-X

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. Figure 5

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] Freedom."

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.

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