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Expert says NASA had to cancel X-33

Homer Hickam, the retired NASA engineer who became famous as a writer, thinks NASA had no choice but to cancel the X-33 prototype space plane.

On March 1, NASA stopped funding for the X-33, a half-scale rocket-plane. If the X-33 had succeeded, the full-size version, VentureStar, was supposed to take off, glide into space and land without dropping boosters or rocket stages.

The goal of the VentureStar was that it could eventually replace the space shuttle, bringing down the cost of lifting astronauts and material into space from the present $10,000 a pound to $1,000 a pound.

Utah was deeply involved in the project, which already had cost $1.27 billion in funding from NASA and industry partner Lockheed Martin. A remote airstrip in Dugway Proving Ground was to be the landing site for test flights, and the hydrogen fuel tanks were built by the Alliant TechSystems plant in Clearfield.

The composite material tanks, of a type never tried before, failed during preflight testing. Aluminum tanks were to replace them, but these were never installed in an X-33 under construction at Palmdale, Calif.

At the same time the X-33 was canceled, NASA shut down the X-34 experimental craft project.

"I would have loved to have seen them go all the way through at least their flight-test phase," Hickam said in an interview from his home in Huntsville, Ala. But NASA officials had to pull the plug "simply because their budget was so tiny."

Hickam is the author of "October Sky," the story of his life in Coalwood, W.Va., and his determination to go into space science. When he was in high school after the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite, he and his friends built their own rockets, winning a science contest that resulted in educational scholarships.

Hickam became a NASA engineer. He worked for the space agency in Huntsville, becoming payload training chief for the International Space Station.

He is not happy about the cancellation of the X-33 but says it was necessary. NASA officials determined the technology needed for the X-33 wouldn't be available, he said.

Still, Hickam said, the project was valuable.

"They had made great strides with the aerospike engine . . . and they also had made some good strides with composite material." But NASA lost confidence that Lockheed Martin could put it all together "and make it work without NASA losing a lot of money in the process."

Hickam had no qualms about the federal government teaming with industry in the project. He thinks the partnerships should go further.

"I believe the American launch industry should be No. 1 in the world. There's no reason why it can't be," he said.

But U.S. launch vehicles must compete against rockets that are produced by the Europeans and the Chinese with funding from their governments. "So I believe it is in the best interest . . . for the federal government to directly fund some of the booster systems that are built in this country for commercial purposes."

Hickam advocates novel methods of space flight.

"Even if we built the VentureStar, we would have just barely gotten into orbit . . . with maybe 25,000 pounds of payload," he said.

Instead of VentureStar, the United States should develop powerful new rockets. They could use nuclear material rather than conventional chemical fuel, he said.

"I know people are afraid of nukes, but they're really quite safe." They can be designed not to react until they are in orbit, away from any danger to Earth.

NASA should get working on non-chemical rockets as soon as possible, Hickam added. "It's something that I think that NASA will ultimately need."

And then what?

"We ought to go back to the moon," he said. NASA could excite the public by returning to the moon and building a laboratory there. The exploration might prove that the moon has commercial possibilities, according to Hickam.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com