NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC
Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA

March 12, 1998


Development of the X-38, an innovative new spacecraft design planned for use as a future International Space Station emergency crew return "lifeboat," passed a major milestone today with a successful first unpiloted flight test.

The first X-38 atmospheric test vehicle was dropped from under the wing of NASA's B-52 aircraft at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA, at 11:30 a.m. EST and completed a descent from a 23,000 foot altitude at 11:38 a.m. EST. The test focused on the use of the X-38's parafoil parachute, which deployed as planned within seconds after the vehicle's release from the B-52 and guided the test craft to landing.

"This was a real experimental flight test and the culmination of two years of hard work by a team from the Johnson Space Center and the Dryden Flight Research Center," X- 38 project manager John Muratore said. "We had done everything we could to minimize the unknowns. But the real proof of the concept is a successful flight. We got one of those today, and we plan to do this about 20 more times over the next two years to prove we're ready to fly from space."

Atmospheric drop tests of the X-38 will continue for the next two years using three increasingly complex test vehicles. The drop tests will increase in altitude to a height of 50,000 feet and include longer flight times for the test craft prior to deployment of the parafoil. In 2000, an unpiloted space test vehicle is planned to be deployed from a Space Shuttle and descend to a landing. The X-38 crew return vehicle is targeted to begin operations aboard the International Space Station in 2003.

"With Johnson and Dryden employees working as a team, we were able to design, outfit and test the vehicle," said Bob Baron, Dryden X-38 project manager. "Using existing NASA infrastructure, such as the Johnson and Dryden control rooms and the B-52 mothership, has provided considerable cost and schedule savings in the development of this prototype X-38 vehicle."

Once operational, the X-38 will become the first new human spacecraft designed to return humans from orbit in more than 20 years, and it is being developed at a fraction of the cost of past human space vehicles. The primary application of the new spacecraft would be as an International Space Station "lifeboat," but the project also aims at developing a design that could be easily modified for other uses, such as a possible joint U.S. and international human spacecraft that could be launched on expendable rockets as well as the Space Shuttle. The European Space Agency is cooperating with NASA in the current development work, supplying several components for the planned space test vehicle.

The X-38 is being developed with an unprecedented eye toward efficiency, taking advantage of available equipment and already-developed technology for as much as 80 percent of the spacecraft's design. The design uses a lifting body concept originally developed by the Air Force X-24A project in the mid- 1970s. Following the jettison of a deorbit engine module, the X-38 would glide from orbit unpowered like the Space Shuttle and then use the steerable parafoil parachute for its final descent to landing.

In the early years of the International Space Station, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be attached to the station as a crew return vehicle. But, as the size of the station crew increases, a return vehicle like the X-38, that can accommodate up to seven passengers, will be needed.

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