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Countdown Begins for 'Space Plane'

Aerospace: Prototype will set the stage for what Boeing envisions as a rocket-like craft that can be used for surveillance and can orbit for months at a time.


A space plane prototype for what Air Force officials see as a highly maneuverable, orbiting reconnaissance and surveillance craft will be unveiled Wednesday at Boeing Co.'s Seal Beach-based aerospace and military aircraft operation.

The rocket-like craft, called a space maneuvering vehicle, was developed in Seal Beach under a $5.3-million contract Boeing inherited when it acquired Rockwell International Corp.'s defense and aerospace operations last year.

A spokesman at the Air Force's Phillips Laboratory in New Mexico said the 90%-scale, engine-less prototype is a small, crewless craft that functions as a powered, reusable satellite capable of carrying a variety of electronic payloads.

Air Force officials are hoping to proceed into development of a powered spacecraft that can stay in orbit for up to 12 months, carry up to 1,200 pounds of gear and be called back to Earth, reloaded and lifted back into orbit in 72 hours or less.

Boeing won't make photos of its test craft available until its roll-out ceremonies, but an illustration from an Air Force fact sheet on the program indicates that it will probably look a lot like spaceships looked pre-"Star Trek"--a flying cylinder with a pointed nose and stubby delta-shaped wings.

A Boeing spokesman said that development and construction of the scale-model space plane took about 10 months. It is made of nonmetallic composite materials.

The space plane program is funded through the initial demonstration phase, in which Boeing must show that the scale model can be remotely controlled and maneuvered as it glides to a landing after being carried aloft and released by a helicopter.

Phase 2 of the program, which won't be financed until next year, would involve installation of an engine and an actual space flight demonstration, including an orbital mission, reentry and recovery. The space plane would be carried into orbit either by the space shuttle or a surplus rocket.

The final phase would test the craft's military applications, including space reconnaissance and surveillance.

Neither Boeing nor the Air Force would disclose the expected value of the second- and third-phase contracts, which would be awarded on a competitive-bid basis.

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