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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 experimental vehicles.

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.

Miklos Nemeth Photo of Miklos Nemeth

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.

Lech Walesa Photo of Lech Walesa 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 demonstrate peacefully.

Photo of Erich Honecker Erich Honecker

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 War.

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.

Photo of Boris Yeltsin Boris Yeltsin

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 SDI concept.

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 Photo of Henry F. Cooper SDIO Director

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 vehicle?

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?

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