X-37 Flies At Mojave But Encounters Landing Problems
The first air drop of the X-37 experimental spaceship from the White Knight carrier craft was called off on April 6, 2006 due to high-altitude winds over Edwards Air Force Base in California. An April 7 attempt ended with the robotic space plane rolling o
Credit: Alan Radecki

A robotic space plane was dropped today at high altitude, touching down under autonomous control, but encountered difficulties on landing and rolled off the end of a runway.

After several attempts, weather and technology merged today for a successful drop test of the X-37, a project of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Space and Intelligence division of the Boeing Company, with limited support from NASA.

According to Boeing spokesman, Joe Tedino, the DARPA-sponsored X-37 Approach and Landing Test Vehicle (ALTV) did conduct its first drop test today.

The ALTV successfully executed its autonomous landing profile, Tedino told SPACE.com, "but the vehicle experienced an anomaly after touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base, California and departed the end of the runway. The ALTV flight team is assessing the situation and reviewing test data. No further information is available at this time."

Nose gear heavily damaged

A DARPA statement on the test flight was issued late today to SPACE.com.

According to Jan Walker of DARPA External Relations the White Knight and ALTV took off from the Mojave, California airport at 6:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (PDT). At 7:28 a.m. PDT, White Knight released ALTV within the Edwards Air Force Base test range airspace at an altitude of 37,000 feet.

After release, the ALTV touched down on runway 22 at Edwards AFB at 7:31 a.m. PDT.

"ALTV's autonomous landing sequence and initial touch-down were flawless and fully according to plan," Walker reported, "but ALTV did not stop in the distance expected and rolled off the end of the runway. ALTV's steering was nominal for the full length of the runway."

The cause of the incident is not yet known, with the ALTV flight team now engaged in assessing the situation, Walker said.

"All flight data has been recovered from ALTV. There was minor damage to ALTV--the nose landing gear is heavily damaged but the main landing gear and aircraft appear structurally intact," Walker explained in the statement.

White Knight mothership

The early morning drop of the unpiloted X-37 took place high above the desert landscape in the Mojave, California area. The drop took place at about 37,000 feet, accomplished by taking the space plane skyward, tucked underneath the Scaled Composites White Knight carrier plane.

White Knight is operated by Scaled Composites of Mojave, California--the pioneering firm that used the same mothership to tote SpaceShipOne to altitude for release. It was SpaceShipOne, also designed by the firm that snagged the $10 million Ansari X Prize by back-to-back piloted suborbital flights in 2004.

The robotic space plane is classed by DARPA as the Approach and Landing Test Vehicle and has been at the inland spaceport in Mojave, California since mid-April of last year.

The White Knight/X-37 mated combination has undergone a series of taxi and flight hops in preparation for today's first release of the vehicle. But the craft's first drop test was plagued several times by local bad weather, as well as telemetry issues between the vehicle and ground controllers.

Early NASA plans

In the late 1990s, the X-37 was a NASA-sponsored project--part of a planned series of flight demonstrators dubbed Future X.

At that time, the Boeing-built X-37 was advertised as an unpiloted, autonomously operated vehicle designed to conduct on-orbit operations and collect test data in the Mach 25 (reentry) region of flight.

Early plans for the X-37 called for it to be ferried to orbit by the space shuttle or a throw-away launch vehicle. Once free in Earth orbit, the craft would remain in space for up to 21 days, carrying out a variety of experiments before reentering the atmosphere and landing on a conventional runway. 

Those plans were eventually cancelled, with NASA transferring its X-37 technology demonstration program to DARPA in late 2004.

NASA determined that the X-37 ALTV did not meet the goals of the Vision for Space Exploration and as a result transferred the program to DARPA. NASA's only role in the drop tests is as a technical advisor, despite the large NASA logo on the vehicle.