ALAMOGORDO, N.M. Creating routine, aircraft-like, low-cost access to space is not only technologically challenging, it will require enormous tenacity to overcome the inevitable bureaucratic, political and funding hiccups. These are just a few of the lessons learned by veterans of the Delta Clipper-Experimental (DC-X) rocket ship program. Created by an entrepreneurial-like pact between industry and government from 1991-1997, the DC-X project showcased the technology and operational concepts for a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle capable of supporting an array of military and commercial applications, including public space travel.
The DC-X was first managed by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, under a contract with the U.S. aerospace firm, McDonnell Douglas (now a part of Boeing). The initial goal was to rapidly prototype the spacecraft as a step toward a single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle. The first vertical takeoff and landing demonstration vehicle flew Aug. 18, 1993, two years after receiving the funding go-ahead.
At the neighboring White Sands Missile Range, the U.S. Air Force flew DC-X eight times between August 1993 and July 1995. Subsequently, NASA and the U.S. Air Force managed an advanced DC-X design that was flown four times in 1996. On its last flight, however, the vehicle tipped over and was destroyed in an accident caused by human error not connecting hardware related to one of the craft's landing legs.
DC-X engineers and program officials reviewed the venture during a 15th anniversary reunion, held here Aug. 17-19, but also assessed the status of space transportation for the 21st century. The event was hosted by the New Mexico Museum of Space History and was a kick-off for fundraising to develop a permanent DC-X/XA exhibit at the museum.
Limited schedule and budget
"The DC-X and XA showed that a small dedicated government and industry team with focused objectives could make significant advances within the boundaries of a limited schedule and budget," said Bill Gaubatz, former director for Delta Clipper Programs at McDonnell Douglas.
According to Gaubatz, the total amount of money spent on the DC-X/DC-XA efforts was less than $100 million, including range and lab costs.
Gaubatz said the DC-X experience was made possible by a small, independent team of selected people. "We were, in effect, a little entrepreneurial team working within a big company," he told Space News, all committed to a "this-can-be-done" philosophy and a vision to drive launch costs below $100 a pound.
"I'm convinced that if the DC-X program hadn't been terminated, we would have been in regular trips to orbit now. We may or may not have been a single-stage-to-orbit, but we would have been a totally reusable, safe, rapid-turnaround transportation system," Gaubatz added. "Cheap, unsafe access is not the way to go."
Aircraft-like space access operations and experience with rapid prototyping development as evidenced by DC-X have a lot to offer the so-called "newspace" companies, Gaubatz suggested, adding that they might perhaps prod the "old" space companies to again get involved in the development of less-expensive space vehicles.
Ambassador Henry Cooper, the first civilian Strategic Defense Initiative director in 1990 who provided funding for the DC-X effort, said he thought the step-by-step DC-X rocket program would pay for itself during its development by launching suborbital targets for missile defense interceptors. He bemoaned U.S. President Bill Clinton administration's action in 1993 to cut the agency's funding in order "to take the stars out of star wars." That deed canceled the DC-X program and turned off all innovative technological progress within the Strategic Defense Initiative era, Cooper said.
"The regrettable part is that we knew how to do this job 15 years ago. It can be done better today. The technology has moved on in spite of the government not investing in it in some cases ? or not investing as much in it," Cooper said.
That DC-X termination brought about two great losses, Gaubatz added: dispersal of the team that worked on it and the loss of time.
Catching "the vision"
Jess Sponable, U.S. Air Force program manager for the original Single Stage Rocket Technology program (now retired from the Air Force), said the DC-X focus was demonstrating a reusable rocket that operates with aircraft-like operability. "We learned a lot about what to do ? but we learned a lot about what not to do," he said.
Sponable flagged the transportable elements of the DC-X, including a trailer-filled flight operations control center. "There's no reason we can't take a similar approach in the future for how we do launch systems," he explained, underscoring the cost per flight of the rocket that was roughly in the range of $200,000 to $300,000.
"We were the last program to actually combine and accomplish faster, cheaper and better ? all at the same time," Sponable pointed out. "The seeds have been planted. The future is coming and it won't be stopped by bureaucratic setbacks. Low-cost space access is coming and it will happen."
Several DC-X veterans at the meeting see a legacy from DC-X, spotlighting a proliferation of private groups that "caught the vision." Examples cited were Scaled Composites and its work on the WhiteKnightTwo flying launch pad to support, in part, suborbital, passenger-carrying spaceline operations, as well as efforts now under way at XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems, among others.
Bolstered by the success evident in entrepreneurial start-up ventures is Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, said Rick Bachtel, general manager of Huntsville, Ala., operations. "What I see in the future is not government funding as much as it is going to be commercial," he said.
To that end, Bachtel told Space News that his company has spun off a smaller group called Power Innovations to harness inventive and entrepreneurial ideas.
Bachtel said the approach is to tap the firm's 3,000 to 4,000 engineers and bring ideas into the smaller group to spin off innovative technologies.
"We have to recognize that a venture might have a good business case, but may not go somewhere. But I might be able to combine it with a couple of other thoughts and come up with something different. That's usually how a lot of the breakthrough or disruptive types of things are," Bachtel suggested.
Band of brothers
Prior to taking his NASA administrator post, Mike Griffin was the former deputy for technology of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization and a leader in getting the DC-X program started.
Calling those who built and tested the DC-X a "band of brothers," Griffin said: "It is people that make the hard work of aerospace engineering indistinguishable from magic," he told meeting attendees.
"Today a small private team can accomplish suborbital human spaceflight, a feat that once took the resources of a government to achieve," Griffin said. "I'm personally convinced that manned orbital flight is within reach just barely of private enterprise today."
Griffin said the United States has not followed up the DC-X with the kinds of technology investments that could revolutionize space transportation. "We need better propulsion, better materials...we need more investment into the technology of operations, which is at least half the cost," Griffin said. "We need to create new paradigms in thinking of how we operate, just the way DC-X did. That doesn't come for free. And right now, policy makers don't seem to be willing to allocate that kind of money," Griffin said.
Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, drew lines between the work 15 years ago on DC-X and today's quest for Operationally Responsive Space.
Payton, a former shuttle astronaut, also worked in the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization as well as served as NASA's deputy associate administrator for space transportation technology where he initiated, planned and led the Reusable Launch Vehicle technology demonstration program, which included the DC-XA flight test project.
"The military needs short notice, quick response, easy changes to the launch vehicle's ascent guidance," Payton said, in order to reconstitute lost space assets. "Sounds like it fits some of things we were doing in DC-X."
Work started on DC-X in the early 1990s "is coming home to us through a variety of systems that could play a big role in our Operationally Responsive Space program," Payton said.
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