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NASA's Choice of Edwards Has Desert Spirits Soaring

Aerospace: Space agency is expected to launch next- generation shuttle prototype at Antelope Valley base.

September 30, 1997|DADE HAYES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a development that could provide a major boost to the Antelope Valley's sagging economy, NASA announced plans to launch its next-generation space shuttle prototype at Edwards Air Force Base.

A study released by the space agency examined factors such as public safety, noise, impact on general aviation and environmental effects, rating Edwards as the "preferred" choice among several competing sites. It identified three preferred landing sites: the dry Silurian Lake near Baker and others in Utah and Montana.

Within 30 days, NASA will consider all technical, financial and scheduling elements before issuing a final decision on whether to proceed with the prototype--called the X-33--flight test program.

But observers of the process, which began more than a year ago and involved extensive public hearings, expect the final decision to be solely a formality.

"By the time they wrap everything up and finish their reports . . . they're going to know that the Antelope Valley is the best place for this launch. We're confident that will not change," said Armando Azarloza, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Palmdale).

In the meantime, political and industry officials are proceeding with the expectation that the program will move ahead at Edwards.

The launch site announcement late last week follows last year's awarding of the prototype construction contract to Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works division in Palmdale and signifies to many business and community leaders that things are looking up.

"Euphoric" was how Vern Lawson, executive director of the Antelope Valley Local Development Corp., described the mood.

"What's significant about it is the long-term potential. Participating in the launch process is exciting and everybody is looking forward to it, but the long term is what most people are waiting for."

If tests of the 136-ton, wedge-shaped X-33 prove successful, NASA will proceed with its long-awaited plan to create a reusable launch vehicle, or RLV. That new craft, which would replace the space shuttle, could usher in an era of far-reaching possibilities.

Proponents envision space launches almost as frequent as commercial airplane flights. In addition to the scientific research equipment and satellites now considered routine cargo, rockets would carry goods for delivery halfway around the world in a few hours or even tourists bound for space motels.

"Space is just another place to do business," Lawson said.

Back on Earth, the current momentum has special importance to the High Desert, where hotshot test pilots propelled the United States into space during the heady 1960s.

But in the early 1990s, the aerospace downturn hit the area with a vengeance. Thousands of jobs were lost and the housing market plunged into a depression, leading one national newspaper to dub the area "the foreclosure capital of California."

"This is going to put us back on the map as a premier launch facility," said Azarloza, McKeon's chief of staff.

Howard Brooks, executive director of the Antelope Valley Board of Trade, said being selected the prototype launch site augurs well for selection as the RLV launch site.

"Everybody here knows this is the ideal place for it. We've been waiting for months for this," Brooks said.

Brooks recalled NASA's public hearing during the summer at Lancaster High School. Hundreds of residents filed into the auditorium to show support for the launch bid, he said.

Many Antelope Valley residents have built their lives around the aerospace industry. A recently erected minor-league baseball stadium, home to the Lancaster JetHawks, was dubbed the Hangar and features a life-size fighter jet outside the front gates.

Figures from Lawson's development group show that of the Antelope Valley's work force of about 160,000, nearly 25,000 people are employed directly in the aerospace industry.

A spokesman for Lockheed Martin said the X-33 project created at least 800 jobs in Palmdale.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Launching NASA's X-33

NASA has chosen to launch the prototype X-33 spacecraft at Edwards Air Force Base. Edwards was preferred over other landing sites based on public safety, noise and environmental impact.

*--*

SPACE SHUTTLE X-33 Length / Width 184 ft. / 78 ft. 67 ft. / 68 ft. Maximum Speed Orbital Mach 15+ Payload Bay Size 15 x 60 ft. 5 x 10 ft.

*--*

****

The X-33

Avionics Bay

Composite Payload Container

Vertical Fins

Canted Fin Structure

Body Flaps

Composite Thrust Structure

Body Flaps

Source: NASA

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