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X-34 Rocket Craft to Be Tested at Dryden Center

Aerospace: North L.A. County site joins two other locations. Battered industry is expected to get a boost.

August 26, 1999|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base will join two other sites in Florida and New Mexico to test the experimental X-34 rocket plane, federal officials said Wednesday--a move local officials say will provide a boost to California's battered aerospace industry.

Although the $85.7-million program is not expected to create a large number of jobs, the X-34 testing will establish north Los Angeles County as the base for a new generation of space vehicles and eventually space travel, said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita).

"It shows even further why this eventually should be the area where we can establish a space port," McKeon said. "We should look out 40 or 50 years when supersonic intercontinental travel or travel into outer space will be common."

The pilotless aircraft can travel at speeds of up to 5,600 mph and at an altitude of 250,000 feet. "The technology demonstrator," as NASA engineers refer to the X-34 prototypes, will contribute to development of future reusable space-launch vehicles.

The X-34 program is designed to develop technology that would slash the cost of putting payloads into orbit to about $1,000 a pound, compared with $10,000 using the space shuttle, according to NASA officials.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials originally planned to test the three X-34 prototypes at Holoman Air Force Base in New Mexico and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

That changed after Air Force officials raised concerns about the size of the New Mexico test site and other safety issues, McKeon said.

Dryden will host a portion of the 27 scheduled flights of the X-34, including the first in a series of powered flights and the majority of high-speed, high-altitude flights, according to a NASA-Dryden spokesman. Officials could not say how many jobs would be created but said it would not be a lot.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., has the $85.7-million contract to build and test three X-34 vehicles. The firm, which has undertaken 279 launches in the last 17 years, has built a growing business with its Pegasus rocket for lightweight satellites.

One of the advantages of the X-34 is lower labor and operating costs. NASA engineers hope the rocket plane will use small ground crews of one or two dozen, who could service the vehicle to launch it again in a few weeks--as opposed to the several months it takes to get a space shuttle back into orbit.

John Pike, director of space policy with the Federation of American Scientists, called NASA's goals "extremely ambitious," though he said even a modest improvement over existing launch vehicles would be a major benefit to businesses such as small satellite operators.

Pike added that while the X-34 would act as a magnet for other aerospace projects, he said it "certainly would not be on the scale of VentureStar"--another prototype reusable launch vehicle being developed by Lockheed Martin.

The $5-billion VentureStar program is being pursued by more than two dozen states and is expected to generate more than 3,000 jobs. California has proposed three launch sites for the project, including Vandenberg Air Force Base, 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles; the Hi Vista region south of Edwards Air Force Base and dry Harper Lake in San Bernardino County.

"X-34 is a messenger service and VentureStar is going to be a trucking company," Pike said.

With the loss of about 220,000 aerospace jobs over the last 10 years, Palmdale officials say projects such as the X-34 and VentureStar, as well as the Joint Strike Fighter, offer the potential to bring significant growth to aerospace in the Antelope Valley.

Carrie Rogers, an economic development project manager for the city of Palmdale, said that in a best-case scenario in which the Antelope Valley landed the VentureStar and the $750-billion Joint Strike Fighter projects, there could be as many as 55,000 new jobs.

"All these are high-paying, high-skill, quality employment opportunities," Rogers said. "Those are the kind of jobs we are going after."

* X-33 SETBACKS: Glitches in Lockheed shuttle replacement project have raised costs. A1

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