Space Plane Prototype Suffers Anomaly in Launch Test
Lockheed Martin's elusive prototype autonomous rocket plane roars down launch rail in second test flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico in an August 2008.
Credit: Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company

GOLDEN, Colorado — Lockheed Martin carried out a second test flight of a prototype reusable launch system on Aug. 12 at the proposed site of New Mexico?s Spaceport America outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

While the 200-pound (91 kg) vehicle reached its planned altitude — roughly 1,500 feet (457 meters) — the craft went out of control and was seriously damaged, beyond reusability.

Liftoff of the proprietary winged craft took place in the early morning hours at the site, zipping up a launch rail under its own power and headed skyward.

The rocket plane flew some 12.5 seconds of a planned flight of less than a minute before experiencing the in-flight anomaly, said Al Simpson, acting director, Advanced Programs, Human Space Flight for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, near Denver.

?We?re investigating right now?to ascertain what happened. That?s the research and development nature of what we?re trying to do,? Simpson told ?We?re going to go off and look and see what happened and then crank that back into our next flight,? he said.

Fully autonomous vehicle

The self-propelled vehicle was flown last December from the same launch area — a test effort that is being done in partnership with UP Aerospace of Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

Simpson said the name of the project, as well as the craft?s propulsion system remains under wraps at this time. The vehicle flown in December and now this month is 8 feet (2.4 meters) long with a wingspan of about 6 feet (1.8 meters), he noted.

Several new test objectives were involved in the vehicle?s second flight, specifically in the arena of autonomous flight and avionics, Simpson said.

?This is a fully autonomous vehicle. We?re working the autonomous liftoff, control and landing aspects of the vehicle,? Simpson explained. When the craft departs its launch rail, there?s no human in the loop, with the flight hardware sensing its environment, including winds, to guide itself on a pre-loaded trajectory to touchdown.

For this experimental launch, Spaceport America officials had prepared a dirt landing location. But once the rocket plane diverted from its intended path, Simpson said, it plopped down about one-half mile down range — within spaceport grounds. ?

?We have another vehicle that?s nearly ready to go. We?ll learn from Tuesday?s flight and take corrective actions,? Simpson said. ?Although we didn?t like the end result, we learned a lot and will crank that into the next flight and keep going ? that?s my message.?

Flies like a rocket, lands like a plane

Simpson said that the vehicle flies like a rocket but lands like a plane. The roughly one-fifth scale rocket plane is being flown to evaluate techniques and procedures for responsiveness to quick launch, ease of operations, and low cost access to space.

Regarding the scaling up of the craft, Simpson said that he and his team want to take one more step by the end of next year. ?The philosophy is to test a little, fly a little?and buy down the risk? in a venture to address the nation?s needs for responsive, low-cost access to space, he said.

Ultimately, the autonomously controlled, sub-scale unpiloted space plane project is intended to lead to the fielding of a larger-scale system, one that lowers the price tag of lofting satellites into Earth orbit.

At the end of 2010, early 2011, Simpson added, project officials want to amass a body of data from the test shots that would be available to say ?should we go forward and ?operationalize? something like this??

?The theme here is trying to do something a little bit differently than the 10-year development program,? Simpson concluded.