PALMDALE — Nowhere is the battle for the future of the aerospace industry in California being waged with more intensity than in this wind-swept desert town.
With a long history of boom and bust cycles tied to the fortunes of the aerospace contractors that put this place on the map, Palmdale and its twin Antelope Valley city of Lancaster are hoping to climb to new heights of prosperity. The craft they hope to ride on is called the X-33.
It's a Buck Rogers name, but proponents see this experimental version of a reusable launch vehicle as a cheap, reliable successor to the space shuttle and the key to the future commercialization of space.
They envision space launches as routine as airplane flights out of LAX. Rockets would blast off regularly, laden with satellites, equipment for orbiting labs, manufacturing materials, cargo for delivery halfway around the world in a few hours--even tourists bound for space hotels.
And civic leaders here see the Antelope Valley as the hub of this emergent industry.
They picture the reusable launch vehicles, or RLVs, being manufactured at Plant 42 in Palmdale, a government facility where the B-2 stealth bomber is assembled and top-secret military planes are designed. The vehicles could be tested at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base and launched from a "spaceport" at Edwards.
As launches become more frequent, it's believed, the spinoff benefit to businesses throughout Southern California would blossom with the need for technology, services and components. Billions of dollars would be pumped into the economy, and tens of thousands of jobs would spring forth.
Just as railroads spurred industrialization in the 19th century, the RLV program of the 21st century "will create cities and industries and opportunities and jobs," said David Urie, a Lockheed Martin consultant.
It all starts with the X-33, the prototype for what is hoped will be an eventual production RLV. The program is seen as the nation's best hope to regain its dominant position in the launch market that it has largely surrendered to foreign competitors in recent years.
Current estimates to develop a workable RLV run from $5 billion to $12 billion. Three aerospace concerns--Lockheed Martin, Rockwell International and McDonnell Douglas--are vying for the X-33 contract. In late June, NASA will choose one of them to produce the experimental, single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft. The prototype will be tested in 1999, and if all systems are go, RLV production would begin in 2000. The rocket would replace the space shuttle by 2012.
"It's not pie-in-the-sky stuff," says NASA spokesman Jim Cast. "Sooner or later, we're going to have to focus on getting into space affordably."
So Antelope Valley is hoping to persuade the winning contractor to make and test the X-33 here. The number of jobs generated by the prototype would probably be a few thousand at most. But it would make the region a front-runner in the contest to be the manufacturing and launch site for a full-scale RLV.
"I think our chances are excellent," said Palmdale Mayor James Ledford. "We have the facilities. We have the ability to flight-test. More important, we have the work force."
But it's a long way from the drawing boards for an experimental spacecraft to the launch pad of a space-based industry. The challenges are of the "giant leap for mankind" variety, and any of the inevitable obstacles along the way could doom the program.
The technical hurdles alone could be enough to kill the RLV before it gets off the ground. Though the needed technologies already exist for the most part, the X-33 would employ them in ways that would stretch the boundaries of scientific knowledge.
"This is a pretty big leap technically," says Jerry Rising, Lockheed Martin's RLV program manager. "I would say a large segment of the technical community is pretty skeptical about our ability to accomplish this."
The RLV would use the space shuttle's flight-control and air-dynamics technology. The design from McDonnell Douglas and its partner, Boeing Co., calls for a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing machine. The Lockheed Martin and Rockwell X-33s would launch vertically and land horizontally like an airplane, as the space shuttle does.
But similarities to the space shuttle largely end there.
The space shuttle discards its fuel tank and solid rocket boosters during launch. And the expendable launch vehicles, or ELVs, currently used to put satellites into orbit are used only once.
But with the RLV, everything that goes into orbit would come back down again, which has never been done before. The rocket could operate with a three-person crew, or it could be pilotless. After returning from a mission, the RLV would be serviced by a small ground-support crew and sent back into space with a new payload in less than a week.