Building the so-called National AeroSpace Plane (NASP), a craft designed to take off from an airfield and fly directly into orbit, will be a daunting challenge. The rocket plane will be subject to intense heat and pressure as it hurtles through the atmosphere into orbit or returns to earth. So, a subsidiary of Textron Inc. in Lowell, Mass., has developed a lightweight, high-strength, titanium-matrix composite that will be used for the frame, wings, and fuselage of the NASP.

The material--silicon-carbide fibers wrapped in titanium--is twice as stiff, 50% stronger, and twice as resistant to very high temperatures as titanium alone, says Paul R. Hoffman, president of Textron's Specialty Materials Div. The composite will also reduce the weight of the NASP. That's a key consideration for the U.S. Air Force and NASA, which hope the craft--still in the research phase--will fly by the year 2000. Hoffman estimates that other uses for the composite, such as aircraft turbine engines and landing gears, will spawn an annual market of $100 million.

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