X-38: The Space Plane That Could Have Broken All the Rules


Had the NASA designed X-38 crew return vehicle (CRV), with its wingless lifting body, ever become operational, it would have become the first reusable human spacecraft produced since the Space Shuttle (which was first built in the 1970s). The X-38 was canceled however, a victim of NASA budget cuts – and still, in the twenty years since, no reusable human spacecraft has been developed.

Developing reusable spacecraft would have helped keep the costs of space exploration down. The monetary costs of space exploration, perhaps the most daunting undertaking in human history, have always been high; developing new technologies and procedures to explore the cosmos is not cheap. At the peak of the Space Race, in the 1960s, the years preceding President John F. Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth, NASA’s budget spiked. Before 1961, NASA’s budget had never exceeded one percent of all federal spending. In 1966, however, NASA’s budget hit 4.41 percent of federal spending – still an all-time high.

The impetus for the spending spree, of course, was the threat of Soviet primacy; nothing inspires Congress to spend money as casually as war. Once the Soviet’s Space Race efforts tinkered out, once it became clear the Soviets could not land a man on the moon, Congress quickly constrained NASA’s budget. By 1975 – the year the Apollo program was canned – NASA was again receiving less than one percent of all federal funding. In the nearly five decades since, NASA’s budget has only briefly skimmed above one percent. During the twenty-first century, NASA has been gutted; today, without much threat of international competition for the cosmos, NASA receives less than one half of one percent of federal funding – which is why a veritable, practical program like the X-38 was cut just before an orbital prototype was to fly.

The X-38 was designed to give astronauts a way to escape the International Space Station (ISS) in the event of an emergency. “Space logistics are complicated. And space travel is dangerous. Emergencies happen. Astronauts die,” I wrote. “The X-38 was designed to mitigate the logistical challenges of space travel, and hopefully, avoid catastrophe.”

Before the X-38 – and since it was canceled – ISS inhabitants have relied on time-intensive methods for getting back to Earth. In the past (when the X-38 was being developed), the Space Shuttle would ferry astronauts from the ISS back to Earth. Launching and operating a Space Shuttle, however, was one of the most complex and challenging technological feats humankind has ever accomplished, requiring lead time and logistical foresight. So, in the event that an ISS inhabitant becomes violently ill, or cracks their skull (probably hard to do in zero g’s but you get the idea) – or if the ISS itself becomes compromised and is no longer able to support human life – everyone would have had to wait around for a Space Shuttle to be launched before being rescued. Not ideal. The X-38 was developed to bypass a logistics scheme that was so inherently life-threatening. No, the X-38 would be standing by, permanently, for use as an escape vehicle, in case of emergency.

Here’s how the CRV worked.

“The X-38 was designed to dock with the ISS,” I wrote for 1945. Should the need arise, the ISS crew could enter the X-38 through a hatched docking system. “Once the X-38 was initiated the CRV would autopilot the crew back to Earth using a deorbital propulsion system (DPS). The DPS, which would include eight thrusters, would adjust the X-38’s attitude and retrofire until the X-38’s speed was sufficiently reduced to allow for Earth’s gravitational pull to grasp the X-38, dragging the vehicle and the crew back down into Earth’s atmosphere.”

After reentry, the DPS would have been jettisoned, no longer needed, as the X-38 would glide back to the Earth’s surface using a steerable parafoil (with a surface area equivalent to that of a Boeing 747’s wings). Since the X-38 was a lifting body aircraft, it would typically need high speeds to land properly. The parafoil was developed to help slow the X-38 down and make landing a little bit safer. The landing, like the rest of the trip down from the ISS, was conducted on autopilot. Ideally, that is. If needed, the X-38 crew could override autopilot and assume manual control of the CRV. And for particularly dire circumstances, the X-38 was outfitted with seven high-altitude low opening (HALO) parachutes.

“The entire escape process – undocking from the ISS to reentry to glide landing – was expected to take between two and three hours,” I wrote.

The sad thing about the X-38’s cancellation is that the program was well underway; two atmospheric prototypes had been built and tested. That’s right. On three different occasions, the X-38 prototypes were drop tested from the external hardpoint of a B-52 mothership. The X-38 performed as planned, gliding through Earth’s atmosphere at transonic speeds before landing at a manageable 60 miles per hour. The successful atmospheric tests prompted NASA to build an orbital prototype. The prototype was 90 percent complete when budget cuts were announced, and the X-38 program was scrapped.

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