19 September 2000
News - Tourism (None)
X-34 Joins X-33 as Fiasco
NASA's Approach to RLVs Shown To Be Totally Misconceived
by Patrick Collins
NASA has recently admitted that the X-34 project, touted with the X-33 as the route to reducing launch costs, is at an impasse. Readers will remember that in 1995, as a result of the great success of the DC-X reusable rocket funded by the Defence Department, NASA announced its own RLV program - with the X-33 and X-34 reusable rockets as its centre-pieces. Both were to start a series of progressive demonstration flights in 1999, leading on to low-cost launch vehicles.

Five years and more than $1 billion later, both the X-33 and X-34 projects are in ruins, and neither is expected to fly anytime soon. It is unclear whether NASA will put more money into them.

Having been budgeted at $60 million, the cost of the Mach 8 X-34 ballooned to $95 in 1998, and recently NASA asked for an additional $170 million (!) to correct some flaws. Among other problems: Its autonomous flight control system is unreliable. Back in another era, the piloted reusable X-15 first flew in 1959 - and then another 198 times, reaching space and Mach 6.7. Compared to that, the X-34 was a step backwards - and it can't even fly.

A more fundamental problem is that NASA's basic paradigm - that unpiloted vehicles are safer (and cheaper) than piloted ones - is flat wrong. This thinking arose because NASA was set up to race the Soviet Union during the Cold War by flying people on converted missiles, which are difficult and expensive to "man-rate" - and they remain dangerous.

But civil aviation has exactly the opposite view: unpiloted aeroplanes aren't allowed to land at commercial airports. Even with experience of hundreds of millions of successful flights, tens of millions of them using auto-pilots, the aviation world is still not near to believing that airliners would be safer without pilots.

So did NASA managers really think that the X-34's untested, autonomous flight-control systems would be acceptable for flying untested rockets over the heads of the public? To the extent that X-33 and X-34 advocates were sincere (and presumably someone involved with them was) they were totally misconceived - they were designed with the wrong technology and aimed at the wrong market. LockMart has said repeatedly that it cannot develop the 'Venture-Star' (an orbital vehicle to be based on the X-33) commercially because the satellite and NASA launch markets are too small - as Space Future has been saying for years

To the extent that they were insincere - and plenty of senior people at NASA know that space tourism is the only activity in space that makes economic sense, but they are trying to suppress this inconvenient fact - the X-33 and X-34 were part of NASA's cynical disinformation campaign to try to persuade taxpayers that general public space travel and tourism is still decades away.

Space Launch Initiative

Predictably, and emboldened by the negligible amount of criticism it has received for the X-33 and X-34 fiascos, NASA and its supporters are now pressing the US government to provide some $4.5 billion over 5 years for a 'Space Launch Initiative' (SLI) to fund further technology work aimed towards reusable launch vehicles (RLVs). (Well, you know what conmen do after a successful con - they come back for more....)

In view of the results of the X-33 and X-34 programs, there is no reason to suppose that this new program would have any greater benefit for taxpayers: It would merely waste 4 times more money and delay space travel for another decade - as it is intended to do. One of the worst consequence of the X-33 and X-34 fiascos was that they effectively prevented private RLV companies from being able to raise commercial investment for the last 6 years, since investors cannot afford to compete with government projects - which suited NASA fine.

The House of Representatives voted recently not to fund the SLI. However, the Senate shows signs of giving in to NASA. It will be sad if so many of the politicians responsible for controlling NASA are so unconcerned to get value-for-money for taxpayers. Imagine if the X-33 and X-34 were projects in the business world: Do you think their managers would be allocated even larger budgets? No, they would be sacked.

Or imagine if you'd just watched a surgeon kill several people in the operating theatre: Would you then send him more patients? Or even put your own life in his hands? Of course not.

Funding NASA's SLI is exactly the same. Both the X-33 and X-34 are total fiascos. The same funding - more than $1 billion - shared between the independent RLV companies, would have already led to commercial sub-orbital space flights, causing a revolution in access to space. That's because these companies do not have an economic interest in preserving the status quo as NASA and its favoured contractors do.

Do US politicians not understand elementary economics? NASA has no interest whatever in realising passenger space travel, because it benefits far too much from its monopoly status - and it will go on spinning out the disinformation campaign about needing "...years more technology development, etc..." for just as long as it gets the budget to do so.

The development of general public space travel and tourism is so important that the public deserves better. If politicians are thinking of spending $4.5 billion of US taxpayers' money to help develop RLVs, they should use it more wisely. And almost anything would be more effective than giving it to NASA - giving some to X-Prize candidates and/or the X Prize Foundation, giving money to the Office of Commercial Space Transportation which is doing such great work in the FAA, guaranteeing 'mail contracts to space' like in aviation in the 1920s - or, best of all, hiring Space Future to share it out. With that sort of money we would GUARANTEE to create a booming space tourism industry.

The worst possible thing to do would be to give it to NASA's SLI, which would not just be utter waste - it could delay public access to space for another decade.
Source: Brian Berger, "Work on X-34 Slows as NASA Gauges Program", Space News, August 28, 2000, (Vol 11, No 23), pp 1, 34.

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Patrick Collins 19 September 2000
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