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Make way for wide load - a giant plane

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Utility poles may have to be moved.

Traffic signs will have to go.Actually, everything along the side of Interstate 80 that could be in the path of the widest object ever to be transported on Utah's highways will have to be considered.

A 40,000-ton state-of-the-art "space plane" will have to be hoisted up and over the tops of several freeway overpasses.

Utahns will be the first to see a science fiction fantasy "space plane" when a scaled-down prototype of the VentureStar space shuttle flies to Utah next year.

But first, state transportation officials have to deal with a mountain of details - including temporarily closing down nearly 100 miles of I-80 - to truck the aircraft out of Utah after its flight from its home in Palmdale, Calif. to Dugway Proving Ground.

"It takes some coordination," said David Miles, an operations engineer for the Utah Department of Transportation. "It's going to shut down the freeway in both directions for a little while."

The aircraft needs 76 feet of side-to-side clearance for its pie wedge-shaped wings. That's about half the width of a football field.

Longer things have been transported through Utah, but never anything this wide, Miles said.

Officials from Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works met Thursday with UDOT officials to map out a plan for travel west on 1-80 into Nevada and then home to Palmdale.

The company will provide escort vehicles and pay for signs, poles and anything else to be removed and replaced in the process.

"It does move fairly quickly, so there shouldn't be a huge delay," Miles said.

On the ground, "quick" is as quick as a bevy of trucks and escort vehicles can go. In the air, the aircraft's 11,000-mile-per-hour speed is unquestionable.

From California's Mojave Desert to Utah's Dugway Proving Ground in 11 minutes: that's how fast the X-33 can move when it's in the air.

But the ride home might be bumpier and slower: Because of wear and tear on the delicate prototype, it will return to its home at Lockheed Martin's Palmdale plant on the back of a truck.

That will provide extra visibility for Utah aviation fans, who might drive to Dugway Proving Ground to see the X-33 land. Or, they might be stuck behind the flying giant as it makes its way back to Palmdale, taking up all the westbound lanes of I-80.

Half as big as the bizarre, wedge-shaped VentureStar behemoth it models, the X-33 will make about 10 test runs between Edwards Air Force Base and Dugway beginning in July 1999, said Ellen Bendell, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin.

The VentureStar is easily the most exciting project NASA has going.

X-33 flights into Utah will be used to test the rocket, aero- and thermodynamic systems and other components used on the Venture-Star, said Ellen Bendell, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin.

The first "space plane," Venture-Star is a "single-stage-to-orbit" reusable launch vessel, which means it doesn't have to shed heavy solid rocket boosters and fuel tanks as do today's shuttles, Bendell said.

"Those boosters have to be retrieved, reworked and refilled. . . . It takes about six months to get them ready to go again," Bendell said. "The VentureStar will have a much shorter turn-around, much like a regular commercial aircraft."