It's an ugly bug mf a rocket: squat like a pyramid, with spindly legs that extend from the base so it can land butt-first. Only a one-third-scale demo, it can't even reach orbit.
In many ways, the Delta Clipper Experimental 1 is quite a comedown from the thunderous Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11 astronauts toward the first moon landing 25 years ago. To critics, the puny "DC-X" epitomizes how low the U.S. space effort has sunk since the euphoria surrounding the Tranquility Base landing on July 20, 1969, a time that President Nixon called "the greatest week in the history of the world since the creation."
FLYING WEDGE. Yet the humble prototype has plenty of boosters. Built by McDonnell Douglas Corp. and 11 other companies with a modest $60 million in Star Wars funding from the Defense Dept.'s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), the DC-X could be the forerunner of reusable rockets that make space exploration a lot safer--and cheaper. Says Air Force Lt. Col. Jess M. Sponable, who oversaw the project: "Within a decade or two, you'll see the beginnings of commercial space transportation that will knock your socks off."
The DC-X is only one possibility for a reusable launcher (table). It takes off and lands vertically, with throttled-down rockets firing to slow the descent. Lockheed Corp.'s flying wedge would take off vertically but glide in for a landing like the space shuttle. Boeing Co. has proposed a stubby-winged vehicle that would take off from the belly of a supersonic transport. Promoters say the vehicles could deliver cargo to space for less than a tenth the price per pound of the shuttle. Nothing is discarded in flight, and there's no need for an army-size ground crew to spend weeks or months preparing them for the next launch.
For now, conventional "expendable" rockets with stages that drop off are still very much in the space race. The small Pegasus rocket made by Sterling (Va.)-based Orbital Sciences Corp., which is launched from a plane, is the vehicle of choice for payloads up to 1,000 pounds. Less expensive some day could be intercontinental ballistic missiles (IBMS) converted for civilian payloads.
Lowering the cost of space flight is crucial to commercializing space. Low-cost launch capacity would propel satellite phone services, such as the Teledesic network backed by William H. Gates III and Craig O. McCaw. Manufacture of materials and drugs in near-zero gravity could blossom. Cheap rockets would also assist the U.S. in recapturing market share in the commercial launch business, which has dwindled to around 30% from nearly 100% in the mid-1970s. Much of the lost business has gone to France, Russia, and China.
Former astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. is pursuing the next generation of launchers with fervor. Conrad, a former moon walker who now serves as a vice-president at McDonnell Douglas Aerospace, is flight manager of the DC-X program. Says Conrad: "This is the first thing that got my candle lit since [Apollo]."
With adventure, though, comes risk: On June 27, a hydrogen explosion near the launch pad ripped a 15-foot hole in the 42-foot-tall DC-X just as it was blasting off at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The flight crew managed to land the rocket about 800 feet away on an unprepared patch of desert. The explosion has delayed further test launches, but it provided designers with some important data about the
DC-X's ability to abort a liftoff without exploding. Says Sponable: "You learn as much from a failure as from success."
SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY? Later this year, responsibility for the DC-X will be transferred from the Star Wars team of BMDO to NASA, which will use the rocket as a flying laboratory to test materials and devices for use in a future reusable launcher. NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin says the DC-X "is one of the most imaginative things America has come up with."
The homely rocket faces fierce competition from rival designs. But it has tapped into a yearning that endures a quarter-century after those first steps on the moon. A sentimental journey? You bet. But says Conrad, who commanded Apollo 12: "Space shouldn't be an emotional thing. We need to make it just another place where we do normal work." In that sense, the DC-X may be just the ticket--back to the future.
SPACE RIDES, ECONOMY CLASS
Reusable launch vehicles that could slash NASA's $10,000-per-pound cost of payloads.
A space plane launched from the belly of a 747-size supersonic transport. The space plane would land horizontally.
COULD BE READY BY 2002 PROJECTED PAYLOAD COST $500 TO $600 PER POUND
A wedge-shaped spacecraft that would launch vertically but land like an airplane.
COULD BE READY BY 2008 PROJECTED PAYLOAD COST $500 PER POUND
PRATT & WHITNEY, 10 OTHERS
A pyramid-shaped rocket that would blast off and land