Fact Sheet #4
The Policy Origins of the X-33
Part IV: The New World Disorder
June 15, 1999
This is the fourth 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 December 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. In the future, rather than operate space transport
systems as it has with the Space Shuttle, NASA plans to purchase launch services
from commercial launch providers, such as Lockheed Martin.
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. The second fact sheet
deals with the specific chain of events that led to the creation of the "Access
to Space" study, the conclusions of the so-called Option 3 team within the "Access
to Space" study, and the role played by an experimental program run by the Strategic
Defense Initiative Office (SDIO) of the Department of Defense and known originally
as the SSTO Program. The third fact sheet reviews the conclusions of the Option 1
and Option 2 "Access to Space" study teams and relates the emergence of
a tentative NASA program to build an experimental advanced technology demonstrator
flight vehicle known as the X-2000. The X-2000 is of interest to the history of the
X-33 project because of the close resemblance between the two programs and their
Before NASA could commit to any kind of single-stage-to-orbit program like the
X-2000, however, the results of the "Access to Space" study had to be addressed.
In addition, the world was changing. A New World Order was said to be emerging as
the Cold War was perceived to be coming to an end. These changes, too, would have
to be taken into account before NASA started any new major programs. Furthermore,
the project that had an extensive impact on the development of the X-33 program,
the SDIO's SSTO Program, was in danger of being cancelled for lack of funding, largely
because of the changes taking place domestically and abroad as the Cold War came
to an end. That apparent lack of support did not augur well for any NASA plans to
embark on a single-stage-to-orbit program of its own. The emergence of a new political
order, and its impact on SDIO strategic planning, forms the subject of this, the
fourth fact sheet.
The Parting of the Iron Curtain
Between the time the SDIO's SSTO Program was briefed to Vice President Dan Quayle
in February 1989 and the public presentation of NASA's X-2000 in August 1993, the
world and the United States underwent dramatic changes. These changes reverberated
throughout the military-industrial complex, overturning defense strategies and extensive
defense and aerospace unemployment. The most dramatic change in defense strategy,
and one that had a direct impact on the nation's launch needs, was the shift from
the Strategic Defense System to an emphasis on theater missile defense. This shift
jeopardized the only active single-stage-to-orbit program, the SDIO's SSTO Program.
By May 1990, when the SDIO released the Request For Proposals for Phase I of
the SSTO Program, events already had taken place that signaled the end of the Cold
War. On December 8, 1988, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had started
the chain of events in an address delivered before the United Nations General Assembly.
After speaking about recent domestic changes in the Soviet Union, including a restructuring
of the country's political and economic life under the rubric of democratization,
Gorbachev announced drastic cuts in the Soviet military presence in Eastern Europe
and along the Chinese border, including a withdrawal of six tank divisions from East
Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and the entire disbanding of Soviet forces
in those countries by 1991. Later that month, Gorbachev met with President Reagan
and Vice President George Bush and discussed ending the Cold War, but the United
States remained cautious.
A few Eastern European countries decided to test Gorbachev's words about letting
them chose their own futures. In March 1989, Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth
visited Moscow to tell Gorbachev personally that the Hungarian leaders were planning
free multiparty elections. The month before, the Hungarian government removed the
barbed wire on its border with Austria and the West. The Soviet Union did nothing.
In Poland, where a wave of political strikes led by the opposition Solidarity
movement paralyzed the country, the Communist government opened talks with Solidarity,
then in June 1989, the country held multiparty elections. The Communists lost; Solidarity
won 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate. Within weeks the first non-communist prime
minister in the Soviet bloc took office. With these first fractures, the Iron Curtain
began to disintegrate.
Leader of Solidarity
In July 1989, President Bush visited Poland and Hungary. He provided little more
than moral support. However, talking with Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign
minister, on his Jackson Hole, Wyoming, ranch, secretary of state James Baker confirmed
to Shevardnadze that the United States would not interfere in Eastern Europe. This
meeting resulted in a new atmosphere of trust. Many Americans were coming to believe
that the United States should help Gorbachev and the reformers in the Soviet Union.
During the summer of 1989, East Germans rushed to take holidays in Hungary. The
idea was to escape to the West. East Germans besieged the West German Embassy in
Budapest, demanding help to emigrate. The Hungarians agreed to let the East Germans
cross to the West. However, East Germany blocked all travel to Hungary. The fleeing
East Germans turned to Czechoslovakia. Demonstrations started in Leipzig and grew
into mass protests. The police tried to stop them. Meanwhile, a plot was hatching
against Erich Honecker, who headed the East German government. A turning point was
reached when the East German police and troops allowed the Leipzig protesters to
Then, on October 17, 1989, Egon Krenz and the entire Politburo voted Honecker
out of power. Krenz promised democratic reforms and assured the people that he would
make it easier for East Germans to travel to the West. All the same the street demonstrations
grew bigger. In East Berlin, on November 4, 1989, a crowd of half a million people
gathered. On November 9th, 1989, Gunter Schabowski told journalists in Berlin that
restrictions on travel to the West would be lifted. The government meant the change
to start the next day. Schabowski, though, mistook the timing. The news flashed around
East Berlin. People rushed to see if the checkpoints in the Berlin Wall were really
opening. The border guards were baffled. They had no instructions from their superiors.
The crowds swelled at the checkpoints. Suddenly the guards gave in and opened the
barriers. West Berliners arrived from the other direction. Germans from both sides
began to demolish the Wall that was both a symbol and a tangible reality of the Cold
The reuniting of East and West Berlin was a clear sign that the Cold War was
coming to a close. Indeed, in a November 20, 1989, address, President Reagan announced
the fall of Communism. After six months in office, President George Bush decided
it was time for a summit with Gorbachev to try to end the Cold War. It took time
to fix a venue for the summit, but finally Gorbachev and Bush agreed to meet in the
Mediterranean on the island of Malta.
Next, Czechoslovakia and Romania cast out their Communist governments. On November
19, 1989, Civic Forum, an opposition group, formed. Protesters in Prague were persistent,
and the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party resigned. Before
the year's end, a noncommunist was elected president. This so-called Velvet Revolution
was in contrast to the bloody end of the Ceausescu regime in Romania.
During December 1989 riots against the regime, security forces killed 73 men
and women. However, a subsequent pro-Ceausescu rally in Bucharest on December 21,
1989, turned against Nicolae Ceausescu, as the crowd began to jeer and fighting broke
out. The whole event was broadcast on television. The next day, crowds stormed the
Central Committee building and charged upstairs. Although Ceausescu and his wife
tried to escape by helicopter, the two captured, while nearly a thousand people died
in the fighting that continued. The Ceausescus were tried by court martial, condemned
to capital punishment, and executed.
The End of the Evil Empire
In January 1990, the first cracks in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
appeared. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, annexed by Stalin in
1940, demanded total independence. Gorbachev argued that the Soviet Union must not
be broken up. Boris Yeltsin, former Communist Party chief in Moscow, was popular
and ambitious. He used the economic discontent spreading through the Soviet Union
to weaken Gorbachev politically. In May 1990, he became parliamentary leader of the
Russian Republic. Yeltsin was on the road to power.
By the time the SSTO Program began in May 1990, with the release of the Phase
I Request For Proposals, the Cold War was coming to a close. Soon, the old Soviet
Union would no longer exist. During January 11-12, 1991, Soviet troops had entered
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to take back public buildings from protesters
who wanted political independence from the Soviet Union. Lithuanians tried to defend
their Parliament and the radio and television stations. Soviet tanks attacked in
the early hours of January 13, 1991. If Lithuania were allowed to break free, there
would be nothing to stop the other republics from doing the same. In the fighting,
hundreds were injured, and 14 were killed. In Moscow, thousands marched in protest.
Ultimately, Gorbachev drafted a treaty that loosened ties between Moscow and
the socialist republics that made up the Soviet Union. It was due for signature in
August, 1991. On August 18, 1991, a delegation of hardcore Communists arrived in
the Crimea, where Gorbachev was on holiday, and demanded that he declare a state
of emergency and hand over power. He refused and was put under house arrest. The
next day, tanks rolled through the streets of Moscow; the news announced that Gorbachev
was ill. An Emergency Committee had taken over.
Confused and concerned, people began to gather at the Russian Parliament building.
Boris Yeltsin entered the Parliament building and prepared to resist. The coup had
not succeeded in seizing power outright. Soldiers were refusing to obey the Emergency
Committee. Some commanders turned their tanks around. On the evening of the August
19, 1991, the plotters held a televised press conference. Fears grew that the Emergency
Committee might order an attack on the Parliament building and its defenders. However,
the head of the KGB telephoned Yeltsin and admitted defeat.
Yeltsin sent a plane to bring Gorbachev back to Moscow. Gorbachev then resigned
as general secretary of the Communist Party. At Minsk, on December 8, 1991, the end
of the Soviet Union came. Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine dissolved the Soviet Union
and set up the Commonwealth of Independent States. President Bush, in his 1991 Christmas
broadcast, announced that the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union
was "now over." A new political era had begun.
With the end of the Cold War came a need to reevaluate strategic defenses, such
as the Strategic Defense Initiative. In addition, any reevaluation of strategic defenses
would have to factor in the country's recent war experience in the Middle East. The
war against Iraq began in August 1990 and ended in the winter of 1991 with a victory
for allied forces. The experience of the Gulf War and Iraq's use of Scud missiles
demonstrated to many the wisdom of changing the SDI program from one of civilian
defense to one of war theater defense.
Theater Missile Defense
In 1989, the Strategic Defense Initiative included a classified payload known
as Brilliant Pebbles. SSX supporters sold the idea of a single-stage-to-orbit program
by linking it to Brilliant Pebbles, for which it was ideally suited as a launch vehicle.
Brilliant Pebbles consisted of a large number of lightweight, low-cost, single hit-to-kill
kinetic kill vehicles that provided integrated sensors, guidance, control, and battle
management. Basically, Brilliant Pebbles was intended to be an autonomous space-based
defensive interceptor. Each Pebble would have its own sensors, computers, and thrusters
to detect, track, and intercept enemy missiles. Brilliant Pebbles also meant that
the SDIO no longer had a need to place 100,000-pound laser battle stations in orbit.
Rather, because each Brilliant Pebble weighed about 100 pounds, SDI launch needs
shifted to a lighter, medium-lift rocket, such as that proposed in the SSX program.
Also, in order to set up Brilliant Pebbles, an unprecedented number of launches would
have to take place. Because the SSX promised low-cost access to space, it was again
was well suited to the Brilliant Pebbles concept, which itself was a new promising
However, in late 1989, in light of the changing strategic relationship between
the United States and the Soviet Union, President George Bush ordered a review of
the SDI program as part of a broader reconsideration of U.S. strategic requirements
for the New World Order that Bush thought was emerging. The review was completed
in March 1990 by Henry F. Cooper, who since 1987 had served as America's chief negotiator
at the Defense and Space Talks in Geneva. Cooper noted that as the Cold War waned,
the most important threat to the U.S. would be from unauthorized or terrorist attacks
by limited numbers of missiles. Additionally, the former ambassador noted, deployed
U.S. forces would face increasing threats from shorter-ranged theater missiles as
the technology of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction proliferated.
To prepare for these new military realities, Cooper recommended that the SDI program
be transformed to concentrate on developing defenses against limited attacks rather
than preparing for an attack by thousands of Soviet warheads. When Cooper became
the third director of the SDI Organization on July 10, 1990, he worked to implement
his own recommendations.
Henry F. Cooper
On 29 January 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, President Bush announced that
the Defense Department was refocusing the SDI program from its emphasis on defending
against a massive Soviet missile attack (SDS Phase I) to a system known as GPALS
(Global Protection Against Limited Strikes). The new system had three main components:
a ground-based National Missile Defense (NMD) to protect the American people, a ground-based
Theater Missile Defense (TMD) to protect friendly nations, allies, and deployed American
forces, and a Space-Based Global Defense that could stop a small attack against virtually
any point on the globe.
The new missile defense architecture meant a greatly reduced version of Brilliant
Pebbles. When the program was restructured during 1990-1991, the estimated need for
spacecraft interceptors was cut by three fourths, to only 1,000. At this point, SSTO
program manager Pat Ladner told a reporter: "GPALS and SSTO are not tied together
whatsoever." If not Brilliant Pebbles or GPALS, what, then, would be the mission
of the SSTO Program vehicle? Did the United States have any need for a single-stage-to-orbit
Ladner and others already had perceived the need to change the mission focus
of the SSTO Program away from just the Strategic Defense Initiative and to other
space missions. The SSTO Program Phase II Statement of Work, issued on June 5, 1991,
downplayed launching space-based components of a strategic antiballistic missile
defense system. Instead, SDIO began to consider the SSTO vehicle for the deployment
of satellites and other payloads in low and geosynchronous orbit, for Space Station
and Space Shuttle support, and for the recovery, replacement, and upgrading of satellites,
as well as for the Bush Administration's venture to return to the Moon and to land
astronauts on Mars. As examples of satellite constellations the SSTO vehicle could
service, program manager Pat Ladner cited the Air Force's Navstar Global Positioning
System and Motorola's Iridium, a set of satellites expected to provide global mobile
telephone service. But was the role of the SDIO to develop launchers for commercial
or Air Force use?
A further complication came in November 1992, with the election of a new president
and vice president, and a change of political party in the White House. The November
1992 elections not only eliminated one of the highest level supporters of the SSTO
Program, Vice President Dan Quayle, but the new White House residents, President
Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, soon eliminated the National Space Council,
another key source of SSTO Program support, as well. The new President and Vice President
would want to shape military and space policy to suit their own agendas, which were
certain to be different from those of their predecessors. The new White House also
left its imprint on the SDIO. On May 13, 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced
that he was changing the name of the SDIO to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization
(BMDO). At the same time, the SSTO Program also underwent a name change to the Single
Stage Rocket Technology (SSRT) Program. These name changes represented more than
just pouring old wine into new bottles. The very existence of the SSRT Program was
at stake, as Congress and the Pentagon seemed bent on deleting it from the budget.
If they succeeded, what hope did any future single-stage-to-orbit program have?