DC-X Honored for Its Contributions, Potential

ALAMOGORDO, N.M. — Creatingroutine, aircraft-like, low-cost access to space is not only technologicallychallenging, it will require enormous tenacity to overcome the inevitablebureaucratic, political and funding hiccups. These are just a few of thelessons learned by veterans of the Delta Clipper-Experimental (DC-X) rocketship program. Created by an entrepreneurial-like pact between industry andgovernment from 1991-1997, the DC-X project showcased the technology andoperational concepts for a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle capable of supportingan array of military and commercial applications, including public spacetravel.

The DC-X was firstmanaged by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, under a contract withthe U.S. aerospace firm, McDonnell Douglas (now a part of Boeing). The initialgoal was to rapidly prototype the spacecraft as a step toward asingle-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle. The first vertical takeoff and landing demonstrationvehicle 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 1993and July 1995. Subsequently, NASA and the U.S. Air Force managed an advancedDC-X design that was flown four times in 1996. On its last flight, however, thevehicle 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 andprogram officials reviewed the venture during a 15th anniversary reunion, heldhere Aug. 17-19, but also assessed the status of space transportation for the21st century. The event was hosted by the New Mexico Museum of Space Historyand was a kick-off for fundraising to develop a permanent DC-X/XA exhibit atthe museum.

Limited schedule andbudget

"The DC-X and XAshowed that a small dedicated government and industry team with focusedobjectives could make significant advances within the boundaries of a limitedschedule and budget," said BillGaubatz, former director for Delta Clipper Programs at McDonnell Douglas.

According to Gaubatz, thetotal amount of money spent on the DC-X/DC-XA efforts was less than $100million, including range and lab costs.

Gaubatz said the DC-Xexperience was made possible by a small, independent team of selected people. "Wewere, in effect, a little entrepreneurial team working within a big company,"he told Space News, all committed to a "this-can-be-done" philosophyand a vision to drive launch costs below $100 a pound.

"I'm convinced thatif the DC-X program hadn't been terminated, we would have been in regular tripsto orbit now. We may or may not have been a single-stage-to-orbit, but we wouldhave been a totally reusable, safe, rapid-turnaround transportation system,"Gaubatz added. "Cheap, unsafe access is not the way to go."

Aircraft-like spaceaccess operations and experience with rapid prototyping development — asevidenced 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-expensivespace vehicles.

Ambassador Henry Cooper,the first civilian Strategic Defense Initiative director in 1990 who providedfunding for the DC-X effort, said he thought the step-by-step DC-X rocketprogram would pay for itself during its development by launching suborbitaltargets for missile defense interceptors. He bemoaned U.S. President BillClinton administration's action in 1993 to cut the agency's funding in order "totake the stars out of star wars." That deed canceled the DC-X program andturned off all innovative technological progress within the Strategic Defense Initiativeera, Cooper said.

"The regrettablepart is that we knew how to do this job 15 years ago. It can be done bettertoday. The technology has moved on in spite of the government not investing init in some cases ? or not investing as much in it," Cooper said.

That DC-X terminationbrought about two great losses, Gaubatz added: dispersal of the team thatworked on it and the loss of time.

Catching "thevision"

Jess Sponable, U.S. Air Force program manager for the original Single Stage Rocket Technology program (now retiredfrom the Air Force), said the DC-X focus was demonstrating a reusable rocketthat operates with aircraft-like operability. "We learned a lot about whatto do ? but we learned a lot about what not to do," he said.

Sponable flagged thetransportable elements of the DC-X, including a trailer-filled flightoperations control center. "There's no reason we can't take a similarapproach 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 lastprogram to actually combine and accomplish faster, cheaper and better ? all atthe same time," Sponable pointed out. "The seeds have been planted.The future is coming and it won't be stopped by bureaucratic setbacks. Low-costspace access is coming and it will happen."

Several DC-X veterans atthe meeting see a legacy from DC-X, spotlighting a proliferation of privategroups that "caught the vision." Examples cited were ScaledComposites and its work on the WhiteKnightTwoflying launch pad to support, in part, suborbital, passenger-carrying spacelineoperations, as well as efforts now under way at XCOR Aerospace, ArmadilloAerospace and Masten Space Systems, among others.

Bolstered by the successevident in entrepreneurial start-up ventures is Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne,said Rick Bachtel, general manager of Huntsville, Ala., operations. "WhatI see in the future is not government funding as much as it is going to becommercial," he said.

To that end, Bachtel toldSpace News that his company has spun off a smaller group called PowerInnovations to harness inventive and entrepreneurial ideas.

Bachtel said the approachis to tap the firm's 3,000 to 4,000 engineers and bring ideas into the smallergroup to spin off innovative technologies.

"We have torecognize that a venture might have a good business case, but may not gosomewhere. But I might be able to combine it with a couple of other thoughtsand come up with something different. That's usually how a lot of thebreakthrough or disruptive types of things are," Bachtel suggested.

Band of brothers

Prior to taking his NASAadministrator post, MikeGriffin was the former deputy for technology of the Strategic DefenseInitiative Organization and a leader in getting the DC-X program started.

Calling those who builtand tested the DC-X a "band of brothers," Griffin said: "It ispeople that make the hard work of aerospace engineering indistinguishable frommagic," he told meeting attendees.

"Today a smallprivate team can accomplish suborbital human spaceflight, a feat that once tookthe resources of a government to achieve," Griffin said. "I'mpersonally 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-Xwith the kinds of technology investments that could revolutionize spacetransportation. "We need better propulsion, better materials...we needmore investment into the technology of operations, which is at least half thecost," Griffin said. "We need to create new paradigms in thinking ofhow we operate, just the way DC-X did. That doesn't come for free. And rightnow, policy makers don't seem to be willing to allocate that kind of money," Griffin said.

Gary Payton, deputyundersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, drew lines between the work15 years ago on DC-X and today's quest for Operationally Responsive Space.

Payton, a former shuttleastronaut, also worked in the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization as wellas served as NASA's deputy associate administrator for space transportationtechnology where he initiated, planned and led the Reusable Launch Vehicletechnology demonstration program, which included the DC-XA flight test project.

"The military needsshort notice, quick response, easy changes to the launch vehicle's ascentguidance," Payton said, in order to reconstitute lost space assets. "Soundslike it fits some of things we were doing in DC-X."

Workstarted on DC-X in the early 1990s "is coming home to us through a varietyof systems that could play a big role in our Operationally Responsive Spaceprogram," Payton said.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.