The Tragic Tale Of How NASA's X-34 Space Planes Ended Up Rotting In Someone's Backyard
The craft were once seen as the future of cheaper, faster space access. Since then they have been reduced to backyard junk that nobody wants to claim.
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The X-34 program aimed to help break NASA and the Air Force into space far more frequently and inexpensively than ever before. In the end, a pair of rocket plane demonstrators were built, but they never were able to reach their full potential. Still, they were part of a wider family of initiatives that have resulted in the Air Force's hugely successful X-37B mini-space plane that has remained in orbit near continuously for years. But after the shine on the program quickly faded around the turn of the Millennium, the unique craft found themselves in increasingly dire straits, stuffed in one dilapidated hangar or another, or weathering the harsh desert climate in the open.
At times it even seemed like the X-34s would get a second chance at life, being brought back from the dead for some exciting new space launch program, but this never materialized. Today, these historic vehicles don't sit in museums or as technical trainers for future aerospace engineers. Through a labyrinth of misfortune, they have found themselves rotting in someone's backyard in Lancaster, California, not far from their long-time home at Edwards Air Force Base.
Here is the fascinating, but tragic story of how the X-34s went from potential harbingers of America's future in space to unwanted backyard junk.
NASA kicked off the program that would lead to the unmanned X-34 in 1996. The Marshall Space Flight Center, situated within the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, was responsible for the project.
The main goal was to develop a testbed that could help rapidly trial new technologies for a future low-cost reusable space vehicle. In addition, the program would serve as an opportunity for NASA to explore improved management processes for fast-track development and testing of advanced systems.
A major impetus for the program was the desire to lay the groundwork for a space access platform that would be significantly cheaper than the Space Shuttle. NASA wanted to drop the price per pound of payload sent into orbit from $10,000 to $1,000, according to one official fact sheet. The total cost per flight would be no more than $500,000.
In addition, a decade earlier, a tragic accident resulted in the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and her entire crew, an event that had already prompted both NASA and the U.S. military to begin exploring alternative means of getting into orbit. After the disaster, NASA only took delivery of one additional Space Shuttle, Endeavour, in 1991, specifically to replace Challenger.
Orbital Sciences Corporation subsequently received the contract to build what became known as the X-34. The company rolled out the first vehicle, known as the X-34A-1, on April 30, 1999, and subsequently delivered it to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, now called the Armstrong Flight Research Center, situated within Edward Air Force Base in California.
The X-34A-1 vehicle, which NASA described as a suborbital demonstrator, was just over 58 feet long and had a wingspan of almost 28 feet. It featured a lightweight composite airframe and various features intended to enable repeated flights to and from space, including reusable fuel tanks and specialized thermal protection for high-speed flight. This latter shielding was also capable of surviving subsonic flights in poor weather, according to NASA.
The vehicle had a GPS-assisted inertial navigation system and an automated system to monitor the status of its avionics and the integrity of the vehicle, as well as its general course and flight performance, throughout its mission. The vehicle had tricycle landing gear and would land like a normal plane on a runway.
However, at the beginning of a mission, the X-34 design would rely on a mothership aircraft to get it to the appropriate altitude. Once there, the vehicle would separate from the carrier plane and then its Fastrac rocket motor would ignite, sending it soaring to an altitude of around 264,000 feet and following a pre-programmed flight route.
Engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center had developed the Fastrac, also known as the MC-1, in-house separately as part of a program to craft a low-cost rocket engine. NASA subsequently contracted Summa Technology, Inc. to actually build these motors.
NASA expected that the pump-fed liquid fuel rocket engine would propel X-34s to hypersonic speeds of around Mach 8. The vehicle would be able to perform at least 25 complete missions.
Orbital Science's Stargazer mothership launcher aircraft, a modified Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, carried the X-34A-1 aloft for the first captive-carry flight on June 29, 1999. Two more captive-carry tests occurred on Sept. 3 and 14, 1999.
Starting in July 2000, NASA conducted a series of unpowered ground tests wherein a tractor truck pulled and released the X-34A-1, allowing it to coast at various speeds. On July 20, 2000, the X-34A-1 rolled along at speeds of between five and 10 miles per hour in two separate runs. Four days later, another pair of tests saw the vehicle get up to speeds of 30 miles per hour.
At that time, NASA planned to conduct another six weeks of this type of ground testing, getting the X-34A-1 up to 80 miles per hour. It is unclear if that testing regimen proceeded as expected. That same year, the vehicle was supposed to make a total of 27 unpowered and powered test flights at the Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
As NASA was continuing to test of X-34A-1, Orbital Sciences also built a second airframe, known as the X-34A-2. The plan was to send this example to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where it would receive the Fastrac engine and go through a series of test firings, before moving on for flight testing at Dryden.
At Dryden, powered flight tests would see the X-34A-2 reach speeds of around Mach 2 and then up to Mach 5. Additional powered flights would then occur at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA hoped to conduct an average of one flight test every 14 days and demonstrate the ability to have the vehicle turned around and ready for another mission within 24 hours.
With the flight test data from the X-34A-1 and A-2, NASA would then evaluate a third airframe, the X-34A-3 across the full planned flight envelope. There were plans for follow-on developments using the basic X-34 design, as well. The original X-34A-1 itself received such extensive modifications that NASA sometimes referred to it as the X-34A-1A.
Originally, NASA had expected the X-34 to fall from the carrier plane and fire a Rocketdyne RS-56-OSA sustainer rocket engine, also found in the Atlas II space launch rocket, to fly to a high-suborbital position. From that altitude, it would reportedly have fired an expendable third stage with a Fastrac rocket engine, which would carry the payload into orbit.
From the information available, NASA appears to have quickly abandoned this concept of operations for the three X-34As in favor of the simplified suborbital design with the Fastrac only. The eventual X-34 vehicles had no provision for a payload at all. However, there were reportedly plans for a larger, three-stage X-34B, which would have required a Boeing 747 mothership.
The X-34B, along with the entire X-34 flight test program, never came to pass. Orbital Sciences never finished the X-34A-3, either.
In 2000, NASA and Orbital Sciences, together, conducted a review of the program, its requirements, and testing schedule. The two parties concluded there were significant risks in the test plan for the vehicle's various internal systems, especially its avionics and automated landing system. The end goal for the X-34 was for the vehicle to be able to land autonomously and do so in the face of crosswinds with gusts of more than 20 miles per hour, according to NASA.
These risks held the potential for cost overruns and delays. Orbital Science's contract with NASA, worth almost $86 million, only covered the design and fabrication of the X-34s. The company had put in $10 million of its own money to modify Stargazer, originally intended to lift the Pegasus series of air-launched rockets, so it could carry the new vehicle.
The money for testing, another $16 million by the end of 1999, had come through a separate joint effort between NASA and the U.S. military known as the Space Launch Initiative (SLI). SLI was a research and development project aimed at exploring a host of technologies related to reusable space launch systems and methods of enabling rapid access to space. SLI funded research into new rocket engines, reusable rocket boosters, and reusable space launch vehicles, such as the X-34, as well as the larger and significantly more complex single-stage-to-orbit Lockheed Martin X-33.
In 2001, NASA officially canceled the X-34 program, along with the X-33 project, in order to free up SLI funding for other higher priority work. We also don't know if this decision was in part due to redundancies or competing programs in the classified realm. It does seem likely that the greater success NASA was having with the X-37A and X-40A programs was a contributing factor.
Despite their nomenclatures, the NASA began work on the unpowered X-40A first in 1998, with the craft serving as a testbed for the larger X-37A. Boeing derived the basic shape of both of these vehicles from Space Shuttle.
The X-37's mission profile was also substantially less complicated than that of the X-34 and its mothership. The miniature space shuttle would instead ride into space on top of a commercial space launch rocket.
In 2004, NASA transferred the X-37A program to the U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), after which it became a highly classified project. Two years later, the U.S. Air Force announced the start of development of an improved X-37B vehicle.
The service eventually built two X-37Bs and the program has been a major success since then. The pair of OTVs have safely completed four orbital missions, the longest of which, so far, saw the vehicle spend more than 700 days in space.
The exact mission sets of the X-37Bs remain murky, but they're still flying secretive missions today. One of the OTVs is in space right now on a fifth orbital flight that began in September 2017 and has already lasted more than 525 days.
The X-34s have not been so lucky. Back in 2002, NASA had put the two completed airframes, along with the unfinished parts of the third vehicle and related equipment, in storage at Edward's shadowy North Base installation. Though there was some talk of potentially putting one or both them into the base museum, this never occurred.
The dilapidated hangar that held the two airframes was open and exposed to the elements, as well as birds and other animals. Our friend and aviation photographer Ashley Wallace managed to grab some pictures of them in this sorry state in 2007, which you can see below.
In 2004, the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced that it was looking into whether it could use the X-34s as engine testbeds to support the development of its own Dream Chaser reusable space vehicle, offering the possibility of a new life for largely forgotten vehicles. But despite SNC's interest, the vehicles remained in storage.
It's unclear why, but Dream Chaser, which is more similar in design to NASA’s HL-20 Personnel Launch System concept, did eventually end up using the landing gear from one of these vehicles. During Dream Chaser's first free flight in October 2013, a portion of that gear failed. This caused the lifting body to go skidding off the runway during its landing attempt at Edwards, resulting in significant damage to the vehicle.
Four years earlier, NASA, still apparently interested in finding some use for the X-34s, had towed the two vehicles out to Edwards' Precision Impact Range Area (PIRA), where they reportedly served as laser designation practice targets for the Air Force. Out on the range, they were even more exposed to extreme shifts in temperature and poor weather. The spare parts and portions of the third airframe were steadily disposed of as waste and scrap, as well.
Early in 2010, NASA attempted to remove them from the PIRA, but the effort ended up waylaid by bad weather, leaving the vehicles sitting on an access road until they eventually being moved to another outdoor site at Dryden in May of that year. Then, in November 2010, NASA moved the pair of X-34 vehicles from that base to the Mojave Air and Space Port. At that time, Orbital Sciences was reportedly looking to see if the vehicles were still viable test beds.
The thought that the X-34s could be returned to flight was exciting to aerospace enthusiasts and the move did make news and was the source of some public intrigue. The vehicles sat on the ramp at civilian test flight Mecca until some time in 2013, when they went back to Dryden.
As of 2015, satellite imagery showed that the remains of the X-34s were still at what had become known by then as NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards. They were parked outside among the hulks of other disused test airframes that once operated out of the legendary installation. Around this same time, ownership of the X-34s was transferred from NASA to the Air Force.
Fast forward to today and the X-34s no long call Armstrong Flight Test Center home, but that doesn't mean they are sitting proudly in museums or are being used by a technical school for training. Their current resting place is a residential backyard in rural Lancaster, California, some 25 miles from their previous home at Edwards Air Force Base.
The X-34 story took a very bizarre turn in the last couple of years when the Air Force apparently donated the craft to a museum in Florida. The man who was the point of contact for the museum had to take possession of them, but was not anywhere near ready logistically to move them across the country. This would have been a major administrative and operational undertaking as each state would require special permits to move the wide loads through. We can only imagine what the bill would be to ship the rocket planes 2,000 miles east would have been, but it would have been substantial.
This is how they ended up in the back yard of the proprietor of Smith's Quickcrane Inc. With the individual in Florida totally unprepared for the complex and expensive shipping process, he asked the contractor that had moved them off Edwards' grounds to store them for a very short amount of time while he quickly got his affairs in order. According to the owner of Smith's, who we talked to on the phone, what was originally supposed to be a couple weeks at the most has turned into many, many months.
The Florida man disappeared on them, leaving them with the space vehicles sitting in pieces in their yard. Then, whenever they tried to collect on the contract or dispose of the vehicles, his lawyers would pop up and try to keep it from happening. Then, just as quickly as contact had been made, that same legal counsel would inform them that they no longer represented the purchaser of the X-34s.
Back at square one.
Clearly, the owners of Smith's Quickcrane aren't happy about with the situation and they just want to get paid and have the vehicles removed. But there they sit, a bizarre oddity to gawk at for anyone who drives down their road.
Check out our exclusive images from the site:
The craft, which weren't in great condition to begin with, have been subject to the elements yet again, sitting on the grass with their internals exposed in that yard for some time now. Their overall condition looks as if it has deteriorated substantially and who knows what has been taken off of them by thieves. Still, at the very least, they could be used as props to support the nearby movie making industry and it's not as if there aren't places nearby that deal in just those sort of services.
It remains unclear who actually holds the title to these craft or if there is even some sort of title to hold. We find it odd that the Air Force hasn't stepped in to remove the craft or find them a new home. If these craft were donated, the recipient clearly hasn't held up their end of the bargain. Frankly, it seems strange that no museum in the region wouldn't have taken them in the first place.
We reached out to the Air Force for comment, but at the time of writing, we have not received a response. We will make sure to update this post when we hear back.
In the meantime, the X-34s, craft that cost many millions of dollars and were once looked as potentially transformational when it comes to developing quicker, cheaper access to space, now sit rotting in the most unexpected and undignified of places. It's a sad end to what already was a fairly sad life.
Contact the authors: Tyler@thedrive.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: A very special thanks to our good friend and contributor Matt Hartman of Shorealonefilms.com for assisting in bringing this piece to fruition.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Orbital Sciences also produced the Fastrac rocket engine that was supposed to power the X-34s. Summa Technology, Inc. of Huntsville, Alabama, which no longer exists, was the actual company NASA hired to build these engines.