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Lockheed Asks Air Force to Fund X-33 Craft Revival

Aerospace: The program would be refocused to develop a rocket plane with weapons.

April 14, 2001|PETER PAE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lockheed Martin Corp. said Friday that it has entered talks to seek Air Force funding to revive the X-33, an experimental spacecraft intended to replace the space shuttle before it was scuttled last month.

The move is the latest attempt to revive the Palmdale-based program, which was canceled by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after encountering technical delays and cost overruns. About $1.2 billion was spent on the program since it began in 1996.

In recent weeks, Lockheed has been vigorously pushing a deal in which the Air Force would continue funding the program, which would then be refocused to develop a rocket plane to carry weapons.

As part of its efforts to develop next-generation weapons, the Air Force has been looking at planes that could fly into space, launch a bomb from orbit on a target anywhere in the world, then return to base--all within 90 minutes or so.

Picking up the critical technology already developed for the X-33, including reusable rockets, would help speed up that goal, an Air Force official told the Washington Post, which first wrote about the proposal Friday.

For the Bethesda, Md.-based defense contractor, reviving the program would help salvage the more than $350 million it spent on the vehicle as part of a cooperative research project with NASA, which had contributed $912 million.

About 110 engineers and assemblers in Palmdale were working on a 69-foot demonstration spacecraft that was about 90% complete when the funding ran out March 31.

"It would be a win-win situation," a Lockheed spokesman said.

But as the Air Force mulls over the proposal, Lockheed must first convince NASA to provide about $15 million in "bridge funding" to keep the engineering staff on a payroll as well as maintain the nearly completed demonstration aircraft in storage, Lockheed officials said.

Air Force officials said the proposal is intriguing but the Air Force does not have the money right now and might look at "funding opportunities" in the next fiscal budget.

Lockheed said it is currently talking to NASA about splitting the cost of maintaining the program until the Air Force decision is made, sometime in October.

The X-33, unveiled with much fanfare by Vice President Al Gore at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, was supposed to be a big improvement over the space shuttle. It was envisioned as a reliable, reusable spacecraft that could slash launch costs from about $10,000 per pound today to $1,000 per pound or less. Instead of using booster rockets as the space shuttle does, the X-33 would reach orbit on a single stage and then land like an airplane.

But problems with developing a composite liquid-hydrogen tank and delays with a new type of rocket dubbed aerospike pushed back a demonstration flight by about five years. NASA officials eventually decided to consider other low-cost reusable vehicles.

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