The X-33 History Project Home Page
X-33 Fact Sheet #1
Part I: The Policy Origins of the X-33
7 December 1997
This is the first 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, 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. Thus, the X-33 is not only
about honing space flight technologies, but also about the commercial launch industry.
The decision to design and build the X-33 grew out of an internal 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
this fact sheet. That period was one of constant, and unexpected, change in both
the United States and the world. The shock waves from those changes are still being
felt today. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait; January 1991, the United States
and its allies attacked Iraq in Desert Storm. In December 1991, three Soviet republics
(Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia) formed a commonwealth, effectively marking the
dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which had been waged
between the Soviet Union and the United States since the close of World War II. Domestically,
the end of the Cold War brought pressure to bear on the Department of Defense to
cut its budget. NASA's budget, moreover, was not safe from the same budget cuts.
As a result, money for new--and old--launch systems became hard to come by.
The Shock of Challenger.
As dramatic and profound as were the changes brought about by the end of the
Cold War, the watershed moment for the U.S. space program and NASA was the tragic
loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew on January 28, 1986. What made
the Challenger accident so damaging, aside from the loss of human life, was the policy,
adopted in 1971, a decade before the first Shuttle flight on April 12, 1981, to place
all NASA, military, and commercial payloads aboard the Shuttle.
Initially, the Shuttle had been intended to be a reusable launch vehicle that
would dramatically bring down the cost of getting into space. Cost studies showed
that the economics of the Shuttle depended critically on it being the only U.S. launch
vehicle during the 1980s and beyond, with launch rates from 25 to 75 per year. In
particular, it was important for NASA to gain agreement from the Department of Defense,
the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency to use the Space
Shuttle to launch all military and intelligence payloads, which were projected to
be roughly one-third of all future space traffic. Placing all military payloads on
the Shuttle resulted in the Challenger accident impairing the nation's defense and
intelligence agencies' ability to place payloads into orbit.
The loss of the Shuttle had an even deeper impact on the U.S. commercial launch
industry. The country that had been first to land a human on the Moon was second
in the international commercial launch industry, which at the time had only two players.
The U.S. commercial space launch industry, that is, the business of putting payloads
into orbit, began in 1981, when a handful of Texas oil magnates operating under the
name Space Services, Inc., built a private launch pad on Matagorda Island, 50 miles
northeast of Corpus Christi, had a rocket built by a private company, and attempted
to launch a commercial payload into space. The commercial use of space, of course,
predated the Space Services launch by several decades. Commercial communication satellites
had been launched by NASA as early as the 1960s, and the previous decade saw Pye
Telecommunications Ltd. in Britain and ITT in the United States attempt to develop
the Moon as a relay for long-distance telephone communications.
Although Space Services' first rocket blew up during a test firing of the engine
in August 1981, the firm's Conestoga rocket successfully achieved a 10-minute suborbital
flight on September 9, 1982. That launch had been cleared with the Federal Aviation
Administration, the Navy, the State of Texas, NASA, NORAD, and the State Department,
but there were as yet no regulations or laws governing private launches. The passage
of the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 filled that legal gap. The intent of the
Act, and the goal of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation of the Department
of Transportation, which had been created under the authority of that Act, was to
promote the development of a private commercial space launch industry in the United
Although the United States had a commercial space policy and law, as well as
an agency to foster commercial launch development, the country did not have a private
launch industry. Instead, it had the Space Shuttle. Figure
policy of placing all NASA, defense, and commercial payloads on the Shuttle had the
effect of frustrating the growth of private enterprise. The Office of Commercial
Space Transportation, which licensed commercial launches beginning in 1984, did not
issue any licenses until 1989. In the meantime, between 1982 and 1986, the Space
Shuttle carried twenty-four communication satellites into orbit on eleven flights
(five of which were made by the Discovery orbiter), and even performed some satellite
repairs. Moreover, not all Shuttle communication payloads were for U.S. clients;
some were satellites launched for foreign customers, such as Mexico, Canada, India,
Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia.
This reliance on the Space Shuttle, instead of a private launch industry, was
an attempt to compete with Arianespace. Created in March 1980 as a private stock
company by European aerospace firms, banks, and the French space agency, Arianespace
took over operation of the multinational European Space Agency's Ariane rocket, including
managing and financing of Ariane production, organizing worldwide marketing of launch
services, and managing launch operations at Kourou, French Guyana.
Ariane launches began in December 1979, and the initial series of missions was
conducted under ESA responsibility.
The first full commercial mission under Arianespace control was the launcher's ninth
flight in May 1984, when an Ariane I successfully lifted the U.S. GTE Spacenet 1
satellite into orbit. By the spring of 1985, Arianespace held firm orders for orbiting
thirty satellites and had options for launching twelve more--representing a combined
order book value of about $750 million. Of those orders, half were from satellite
customers outside the European home market. Arianespace marketing combined the best
of both worlds: the marketing freedom of a private company, plus the direct support
of government agencies.
The Space Shuttle was not the only U.S. response to Arianespace competition.
Transpace Carriers, a private U.S. firm created to provide McDonnell Douglas Delta
launch services, attempted to halt trading by Arianespace in the United States on
grounds of unfair subsidy pricing. Arianespace used a two-tier pricing policy, charging
higher prices to the European Space Agency (ESA) and its member states. The French
space agency subsidized Arianespace launch and range services, as well as administrative
and technical personnel, and ESA member states subsidized Arianespace insurance rates.
Transpace Carriers filed a petition on May 25, 1984, with the Office of the United
States Trade Representative (USTR) under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. Transpace
alleged that the European Space Agency was engaged in predatory pricing and other
unfair trade practices in the sale of Ariane launch services. The USTR accepted the
case on July 9, 1984, and meetings between European and U.S. government officials
began in November 1984. Talks soon turned to pricing and subsidy comparisons of the
Space Shuttle and Ariane. On July 17, 1985, President Reagan determined that the
pricing and subsidy practices of Arianespace were neither unreasonable nor a restriction
on U.S. commerce, because Arianespace practices were not sufficiently different from
those of the United States Shuttle to warrant action under the Trade Act of 1974.
Then came the Challenger accident. National Security Decision Directive 254,
released shortly after the Challenger accident, took NASA and the Shuttle out of
competition with U.S. commercial launch providers for commercial and foreign spacecraft
payloads. NSDD 254 bore fruit in 1989, three years later, when the Office of Commercial
Space Transportation (OCST) issued four commercial launch licenses, and had five
more license applications pending. As the OCST reported to Congress in 1990: "Fiscal
Year 1989 was a turning point for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST)
and the U.S. commercial launch industry." The OCST had licensed the first U.S.
commercial launches, thus marking "the beginning of a new era in the history
of U.S. space endeavors." Later government policy intentions to foster the U.S.
commercial launch industry were a key factor in the shaping of the X-33 program.
A New Launch System?
The year 1989 saw not only the emergence of the U.S. commercial launch industry,
but a change in the White House that impacted directly on space policy. The November
1988 elections brought President George Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle to the
White House. The new Vice President took a special interest in space policy, and
created the National Space Council to advise the White House. Between 1989 and 1992,
a large number of space transport studies were undertaken by NASA and a host of other
agencies and organizations. These studies grew partly out of Congress' desire to
cut the federal budget, and in particular, the NASA budget, and partly out of the
perception that new launch technologies were needed. The Shuttle was technology from
the 1970s; expendable launchers had been developed even earlier.
In fact, the United States was attemptintg to develop new launch systems. One
was the Advanced Launch System (ALS), which later became the National Launch System
(NLS), an advanced form of expendable launcher capable of putting heavy payloads
into orbit. A proposed use of this launcher was the Space Exploration Initiative,
President Bush's plan to return permanently to the Moon, and to land an astronaut
on Mars. Another new launch system was the National AeroSpace Plane (NASP), also
known as the X-30.
Figure 3 Announced
in January 1986, coincidental with the Shuttle accident, the National AeroSpace Plane
was to be a reusable, air-breathing single-stage-to-orbit technology demonstrator.
Both the X-30 and the advanced expendable launcher were joint efforts of NASA and
the Department of Defense. 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
Starting in 1989, the NASP and advanced expendable launcher program came under
attack by Congress, as the House and Senate sought ways to cut the debt-burdened
federal budget. Later, in 1994, Congress pulled the plug on NASP, when it was feared
that development costs would exceed those of the Space Shuttle, but without significantly
reducing the cost of getting into space. Attacks on the NASA budget and its programs,
combined with the search for new launch technologies, spawned a host of studies by
NASA, the Department of Defense, the White House, and numerous other agencies and
Perhaps the best remembered of these studies was that of the Augustine Committee,
the popular name for the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program.
Named after the Advisory Committee's chair, Norman R. Augustine, then CEO of the
Martin Marietta Corporation, the Advisory Committee consisted of twelve members selected
from industry, academia, the military, and NASA. After listening to testimony from
over 300 witnesses, they released a report in December 1990 that stated their consensus
opinion, namely, that: "the overall technical base underpinning the space program
has been permitted to languish in terms of funding for several decades." The
Augustine Committee urged NASA to develop a new unmanned launch vehicle to supplement
the Shuttle, using elements derived from current expendable launcher research, and
to retain the NASP program.
An earlier NASA study conducted in 1989 by the Advisory Council Task Force on
Space Transportation made essentially the same recommendations as the Augustine Committee.
Other reports followed between 1990 and 1992, such as Scott Pace's Rand report, undertaken
for the Air Force, titled "U.S. Access to Space: Launch Vehicle Choices for
1990-2010." An Office of Technology Assessment study also released in 1990 echoed
that title in its "Access to Space: The Future of U.S. Space Transportation
Systems." Still other reports were issued by the Defense Science Board (1990),
the Congressional Research Service (1992), the National Space Council (1992), and
the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the National Research Council (1992).
All of the reports agreed on the need to retain, and improve, the Space Shuttle.
Many even recommended building an additional orbiter. The development of a heavy
payload expendable launcher also enjoyed general support. Only the NASP raised doubts
in some minds. Essentially, then, these reports endorsed future space launchers that
were variations on existing technological systems: an advanced, heavy payload expendable
launcher, the NASP, and the Shuttle. The future they envisioned would be technologically
like the present, only somehow better.
What was missing from these reports was any idea that an entirely different technology,
such as a rocket-powered reusable launch vehicle, could or should be attempted. One
exception, however, stands out: the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the
National Research Council report, "From Earth to Orbit: An Assessment of Transportation
Options," published in 1992. The Committee on Earth-to-Orbit Transportation
Options, chaired by Joseph G. Gavin, Jr., former president of Grumman, addressed
the question of rocket-powered single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicles, specifically
the Single Stage to Orbit Program. The Committee recommended vigorous continuation
of the program.
The Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) belonged to neither NASA nor the conventional
Department of Defense. Instead, it was part of a new Pentagon organization, the Strategic
Defense Initiative Office (SDIO). The SSTO Program would have a lasting impact on
the evolution of space transport systems, and in particular, on NASA's "Access
to Space" study.
The Delta Clipper Experimental.
The Single Stage to Orbit Program began, not at the Pentagon, but as a private
initiative. The gumdrop-shaped design was the idea of Max Hunter, a retired Lockheed
aerospace engineer. Hunter's SSX (Space Ship eXperimental) would fly to orbit, deliver
its payload, and return to Earth intact. It would return from a flight, then be refueled
and checked out for another flight in two or three days, as opposed to the months
required to prepare a Shuttle for launch. Hunter's SSX represented a revolution in
thinking about space launch vehicles, one that could reduce dramatically the cost
of placing payloads in orbit. Hunter's SSX was not the first, though; several NASA
Langley Research Center and industry designs for single-stage-to-orbit vehicles predated
it. Hunter talked to anyone he could about his SSX idea, including the Air Force,
the President's Science Advisor, NASA, and the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization
The pivotal moment for Hunter's SSX came after he met retired General Daniel
O. Graham. Through his High Frontier Society, Graham had campaigned for a new approach
to space defense that came to be called Star Wars, officially the Strategic Defense
Initiative. Hunter's single-stage-to-orbit SSX excited Graham, who was one of the
most active members of the Citizens Advisory Group for Space, a space activist group
organized by science fiction writer (and speech writer for California Governor Ronald
Reagan) Jerry Pournelle. Graham contacted Pournelle and asked the Citizens Advisory
Council on National Space Policy to critique Hunter's proposal.
The meeting took place in Pournelle's California home in December 1988. No one
at the meeting seriously challenged Hunter's technological assertions, and Graham
was nominated to sell the SSX idea to Vice President Dan Quayle. It was further agreed
that the project's best chance for success was to put it under the aegis of the Strategic
Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO). SDIO already had a reputation for a light-handed
management style that got results, and, Graham believed, the agency was too young
for "bureaucrats" to hinder the project. Graham decided that his High Frontier
Society would support the SSX idea, and he promoted the plan all the way to the White
On 12 February 1989, Graham, accompanied by Max Hunter and Jerry Pournelle, briefed
Vice President Dan Quayle on Hunter's SSX idea. Hunter elaborated on some of the
technical details, while Pournelle discussed the political value of having supported
the project when Quayle sought the presidency at a future date. The Vice President
was interested, and he asked the National Space Council to assess it. The Council
joined the Vice President in supporting the SSX project, and proposed that the SDIO
(the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization) undertake an analysis of it.
Rather than perform another paper study of the SSX, the SDIO decided to build
and operate a vehicle. Thus, the SSX, under the generic title Single Stage To Orbit
(SSTO) Program, came into existence. The SDIO issued the concise "Statement
of Work for the SSTO Technology Demonstration" to industry in July 1990.
The SSX was a single-stage reusable rocket that took off and landed vertically.
Rocket reusability promised to dramatically reduce the cost of putting payloads into
orbit. This cost reduction had real meaning for one of the Star Wars options, "Brilliant
Pebbles," a plan to launch thousands of satellites into orbit.
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 (not the SSX specifically) 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 on August 16, 1991.
McDonnell Douglas called the vehicle the DC-X for Delta Clipper Experimental.
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.
Changes at the Top.
The DC-X, however, largely escaped the notice of those preparing space transport
studies, and when the vehicle was revealed to the public on April 3, 1993, the event,
like the building of the DC-X itself, attracted little media attention. As McDonnell
Douglas busily built the DC-X in under 24 months, major changes took place at NASA
and the White House that paved the way for the "Access to Space" study,
and a momentous change in space transport policy.
The first change occurred in February 1992, as Congress was scrutinizing the
NASA budget and questioning expenses for the NASP and expendable launcher programs.
Richard H. Truly, who had been NASA Administrator since July 1, 1989, resigned his
position. The timing of his departure was odd, because the Presidential elections
were only months away in November. The circumstances surrounding his departure shed
light on the changing politics of space policy during the Bush Administration.
Throughout his NASA career, Richard Truly had been associated with the Space
The former Navy admiral and head of the Navy's Space Defense Board, an agency created
on October 1, 1983, to consolidate all Navy space efforts, had been selected as a
NASA astronaut in August 1969. Truly was an astronaut on the first reflight of a
spacecraft. For that achievement, he and his fellow Shuttle astronauts received the
Robert J. Collier Trophy in 1982 "for proving the concept of manned reusable
After the Challenger accident, Truly returned to NASA on February 20, 1986, at
the invitation of the White House to supervise the resurrection of the Shuttle program
as the associate administrator for space flight. Safety, not daring, was the key
to Truly's revitalization of the Shuttle program. This mission had personal meaning
for Truly: he had flown with Shuttle astronaut Mike Smith, who died on the Challenger.
The new NASA Administrator soon learned that getting the Shuttle flying again
was not a straightforward technical problem. As Truly explained at a National Space
Club luncheon on February 26, 1992: "I thought my job was to discover the cause,
fix it, ensure future safety and reliability, and return the space shuttle to safe
flight. I quickly discovered, however, that I was embroiled in politics, budgets
and a critical reexamination of NASA, all surrounded by a media zoo." The Shuttle
flew again in September 1988, and on July 1, 1989, Truly became NASA's eighth administrator,
as the space agency budget gradually declined. He served about as long as it had
taken to get the Shuttle flying again.
The catalyst for Truly's forced resignation was a widely publicized policy rift
between Truly and the NASA "hierarchy" on one hand and the Vice President
and the National Space Council on the other. Disagreement prevailed over space policy
fundamentals. Some within the space community saw Truly's departure as an opportunity
for NASA as an institution to renew itself. As Space News reported in February 1992,
during Truly's last days as NASA Administrator, "The words 'cheaper, faster,
better,' have become the battle cry for a growing group of engineers, scientists,
and managers who have been urging the White House to shake up the civil space program
along these lines."
Truly's replacement, Daniel S. Goldin, was sworn in as NASA Administrator on
April 1, 1992. Goldin came from industry. He had been a vice president at TRW in
charge of satellite systems, such as the MILSTAR constellation of communication and
surveillance satellites. Goldin wanted to reform NASA. He soon made the reformers'
motto, "cheaper, faster, better," his own. As Truly left, the Shuttle came
under attack as the antithesis of "cheaper, faster, better." Moreover,
NASA's two strongest Space Shuttle supporters, Richard Truly and William Lenoir,
associate administrator for space flight, had resigned as of April 1992. Goldin,
in one of his first speeches as NASA chief, announced his commitment to the Space
Shuttle, "the nation's primary vehicle for human space flight for the next decade
or two," and to the White House's space program.
The tumult in space policy did not abate with the appointment of Dan Goldin as
NASA Administrator. Congress continued to attack NASA's space transport initiatives,
the NASP and expendable launcher programs, as well as the Shuttle. The U.S. space
program appeared to be going nowhere, or to be at least halfway there.
In November 1992, the White House changed party with the election of Bill Clinton
and Al Gore. Quayle's National Space Council was abolished, but Goldin was retained
as NASA Administrator, a rare continuity in a time of change. The new White House
was not going to retain its predecessors' space policy, though. In January 1993,
the same month as Clinton and Gore were sworn into office, Goldin ordered a series
of agency-wide internal studies intended to reassess the Agency's "programs,
goals, posture, and long-range plans." Space transport was a central focus of
these studies, because it was at the heart of NASA's ability to support a civil space
The newest space transport study bore the generic name "Access to Space"
used by so many other previous studies. However, the new changes at NASA and the
White House meant that this new study could serve as a tool for the new NASA administrator
to reform the space agency. Also, a politically significant point, the study would
permit the new White House to make its mark on the nation's space program. "Access
to Space" would not be like all the other paper studies that had preceded it.
This one would lead to the creation of a flight vehicle, the X-33, and a NASA commitment
to a reusable launch vehicle program.
For Further Reading.
For more on the history of the Space Shuttle, see Dennis R. Jenkins, The History
of Developing the National Space Transportation System: The Beginning through STS-75,
2d ed. (Indian Harbor Beach, Fla.: Dennis R. Jenkins, 1996), which includes a reading
list on pp. A5-A7. Although no history of Arianespace is available, an overview of
the enterprise is R. Deschamps, "Arianespace: A Private European Launch Service
Experience," AIAA Paper 82-1803. For background on the National Aerospace Plane,
see Larry Schweikert, "Hypersonic Hopes: Planning for NASP, 1982-1990,"
Air Power History 41 (Spring 1994): 36-48; or Schweikert's book-length study,
The Quest for the Orbital Jet: The National Aerospace Plane Program, 1982-1996,
forthcoming through the NASA History Office.
Additional background information can be found at various Internet sites. For
example, the Arianespace site includes a list of all launches since 1979 and their
payloads, at http://www.arianespace.com. A good
deal of historical information on the Space Shuttle also is available through the
NASA History Office web site at http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/shuttlehistory.html.
In addition to basic information on each Shuttle mission, the site has links to "Toward
a History of the Space Shuttle," an annotated bibliography of published works
on the subject, and to the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle history archive.
For information and news about the X-33, see the official NASA Marshall Space
Flight Center site at http://stp.msfc.nasa.gov. This
site deals with not only the X-33, but with the X-34 and NASA's overall Space Transportation
Program. Also useful is the X-33 history web site, at http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/x-33/home.htm.
Through its annotated arachniography, this site provides links
to a variety of web sites and individual web pages dealing with the X-33, its technologies,
and industrial partners.