During my recent visit to Mojave, I spotted these forlorn-looking X-34 test vehicles sitting on the tarmac beside Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Stargazer L-1011 aircraft.
As you might recall, these vehicles had originally been built by OSC for a NASA hypersonic research project that the space agency canceled in 2001. The vehicles were in storage at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center until late last year, when they were transferred to the nearby Mojave Air & Space Port after several companies expressed interest in using them as technology demonstrators for reusable spacecraft. They were originally stored in a hangar at the National Test Pilot School while being evaluated for possible flights, but they have been since moved outside.
Wired has more about the X-34s from Dave Huntsman, an engineer with NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, who spearheaded the effort to pull the hypersonic vehicles out of storage:
â€œThe real idea didnâ€™t come from me, or my Dryden buddies, or from Orbital Sciences who built them [the X-34s],â€ Huntsman wrote. â€œIt came during a week in October 2009, simultaneously, at a workshop in Dayton, Ohio (where the Air Force Research Lab is based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base), from two different entrepreneurial space companies.â€
A Wednesday call to Orbital Sciences, the original manufacturers of the X-34, resulted in a brief conversation with a bemused company official. Barry Berneski, Orbitalâ€™s communications director, said he had read the X-34 news, but had heard nothing on the subject from inside the firm. â€œThey might be just trying get it out of Edwardsâ€™ valuable real estate,â€ Berneski said of the 59-foot-long space planes, only one of which ever flew â€” and just once â€” before the program was canceled on cost grounds in 2001…
The idea to ship the X-34s to Mojave and inspect them originated with a Dryden-based NASA engineer, Brown said. â€œWhen he found out this thing stillÂ existed â€¦ he decided people should take a look to see if it could be refurbished and made flightworthy.â€ Thatâ€™s when the contractors came to retrieve the two neglected spacecraft, pictured above en route to the Mojave.
But that doesnâ€™t mean NASA has formal plans to operate the X-34s under its own auspices, now or ever, Brown stressed. Provided theyâ€™re in flyable shape, itâ€™s far more likely the space agency will make the X-34s available to private industry. â€œThere are a number of firms interested in these things, developing communications and other technologies,â€ Brown said. â€œIt would be helpful if they had a vehicle.â€
The two X-34 hypersonic research aircraft developed by Orbital Sciences Corp. to serve as flight demonstrators for a NASA rocket engine technology development program in the mid-1990s were transported overland via truck from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base to the Mojave Air and Spaceport Nov. 16-17. The two technology demonstrators will be stored temporarily at a hangar operated by the National Test Pilot School while undergoing inspections by Orbital Sciences personnel to determine if they are viable for flight.