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In July 1996, NASA and Lockheed Martin Corporation and its industry partners entered into a cooperative agreement for the design, development, and flight-testing of the X-33. The X-33 was to be an unmanned technology demonstrator. Lockheed Martin made agreements with Allied Signal Aerospace, B.F. Goodrich Aerospace, Boeing-Rocketdyne Division, and Sverdrup Corporation for the X-33 Program. NASA's use of a cooperative agreement allowed the industry partners, and NASA, to withdraw from the agreement without penalty at any time.

The X-33 was intended to be a 1/3 scale prototype of a fully-operational RLV called the VentureStar. Because high flight rates are necessary to reduce costs, the VentureStar would have to launch commercial payloads to become cost-effective. This meant it had to be a privately-owned launch vehicle, as U.S. law does not permit the US Government to launch payloads into space for commercial customers. NASA also hoped to reduce the cost to the taxpayers of developing an operational vehicle by procuring launch services from the private sector, thereby paying the marginal cost of only those launch services the government needed and ensuring that the taxpayers did not foot the entire bill of developing a fully-operational VentureStar. Thus, it pursued the X-33 through a cooperative agreement with Lockheed-Martin.

It would take off vertically like a rocket, reaching an altitude of up to 60 miles and speeds to about Mach 13 (13 times the speed of sound), and land horizontally like an airplane. The X-33 would flight test a range of technologies needed for future launch vehicles, such as thermal protection systems, advanced engine design and lightweight fuel tanks made of composite materials. The vehicle would not actually achieve orbit, but based on the results of demonstrating the new technologies, NASA envisioned being in a better position to make a decision on the feasibility and affordability of building a full-scale system.

The Lockheed Martin X-33 design was based on a lifting bodyshape with two revolutionary linear aerospike rocket engines and a rugged metallic thermal protection system. It will be an autonomously piloted vehicle, launched vertically like a rocket, reaching an altitude of 60 miles and speeds faster than Mach 13 (13 times the speed of sound), and landing horizontally like an airplane. Although suborbital, the X-33 will fly high enough and fast enough to encounter conditions similar to those experienced on an orbital flight path to fully test its systems and performance. Highlighting the vehicle's aircraft-like operations, the X-33 program planned to demonstrate a standard seven-day turnaround, as well as an emergency two-day turnaround, between selected flights.

A series of 15 flight tests was planned to begin at the turn of the century. Initial flights of 450 miles were to be conducted from Edwards Air Force Base, CA, to Dugway Proving Ground, UT. As officials gained increased confidence in the vehicle's performance, plans called for more challenging 950-mile flights from Edwards AFB to Malmstrom AFB, MT.

The industry team included lead Lockheed Martin in, Palmdale, CA; AlliedSignal Aerospace, Teterboro, NJ; Boeing Rocketdyne, Canoga Park, CA; B.F. Goodrich Aerospace, Chula Vista, CA; and Sverdrup, St. Louis, MO. The government team includes NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, the program manager; Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA; Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Mojave, CA; Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD; Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA; Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX; Kennedy Space Center, FL; Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA; Lewis Research Center, Cleveland, OH; and Stennis Space Center, MS.

Under the initial terms of the cooperative agreement, NASA's contribution was fixed at $912.4 million and its industry partners' initial contribution was $211.6 million. In view of the potential commercial viability of the launch vehicle and its technologies, the industry partners also agreed to finance any additional costs.

Technical problems in developing the X-33's composite fuel tanks, aerospike engines, heat shield, and avionics system resulted in significant schedule delays and cost overruns. After two program reviews in 1998 and 1999, the industry partners added a total of $145.6 million to the cooperative agreement to pay for cost overruns and establish a reserve to deal with future technical problems and schedule delays. However, NASA officials stated that they did not independently develop their own cost estimates for these program events to determine whether the additional funds provided by industry would be sufficient to complete the program. Also, these technical problems resulted in the planned first flight being delayed until October 2003, about 4.5 years after the original March 1999 first flight date.

During a test in November 1999, one of the composite fuel tanks failed due to separation of the composite surface. Following the investigation, NASA and Lockheed Martin agreed to replace the composite tanks with aluminum tanks. After the composite fuel tank failed, according to NASA officials, Lockheed Martin opted not to go forward with the X-33 Program without additional NASA financial support.

Lockheed Martin initially proposed adding $95 million of its own funds to develop a new aluminum tank for the hydrogen fuel, but also requested about $200 million from NASA to help complete the program. Such contributions would have increased the value of the cooperative agreement to about $1.6 billion or about 45 percent (about $500 million) more than the $1.1 billion initial cooperative agreement funding. NASA did not have the reserves available to cover such an increase. The agency did, however, allow Lockheed Martin to compete, in its 2nd Generation Program solicitation, for the additional funds Lockheed Martin believed it needed to complete the program.

X-33 Specifications
Length: 69 ft
Width: 77 ft
Takeoff weight: 285,000 lbs
Fuel: LH2/LO2
Fuel weight: 210,000 lbs
Main Propulsion: 2 J-2S Linear Aerospikes
Take-off thrust: 410,000 lbs
Maximum speed: Mach 13+
Payload to Low Earth Orbit: N/A

What Went Wrong?

NASA did not develop realistic cost estimates in the early stages of the X-33 program. From its inception, NASA officials considered the program to be high risk, with a success-oriented schedule that did not allow for major delays. Nevertheless, in September 1999, NASA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported that NASA's cost estimate did not include a risk analysis to quantify technical and schedule uncertainties. Instead, the cost estimate assumed that needed technology would be available on schedule and as planned. According to the OIG, a risk analysis would have alerted NASA decision-makers to the probability of cost overruns in the program.

Since NASA's contribution to the program was fixed-with Lockheed Martin and its industry partners responsible for costs exceeding the initial $1.1 billion-X-33 program management concluded that there was no risk of additional government financial contributions due to cost overruns. They also believed that the projected growth in the launch market and the advantages of a commercial reusable launch vehicle would provide the necessary incentive to sustain industry contributions.

NASA did not complete a configuration management plan for the X-33 until May 1998-about 2 years after NASA awarded the cooperative agreement and Lockheed Martin began the design and development of a flight demonstration vehicle. Configuration management plans define the process to be used for defining the functional and physical characteristics of a product and systematically controlling changes in the design. As such, they enable organizations to establish and maintain the integrity of a product throughout its life cycle and prevent the production and use of inconsistent product versions. By the time the plan was implemented, hardware for the demonstration vehicle was already being fabricated.

NASA did not prepare risk management plans for both the X-33 and X-34 programs until several years after the projects were implemented. Risk management plans identify, assess, and document risks associated with cost, resource, schedule, and technical aspects of a project and determine the procedures that will be used to manage those risks. In doing so, they help ensure that a system will meet performance requirements and be delivered on schedule and within budget.

Although Lockheed Martin developed a plan to manage technical risks as part of its 1996 cooperative agreement for the X-33, NASA did not develop its own risk management plan for unique NASA risks until February 2000. The NASA Administrator and the NASA Advisory Council have both commented on the need for risk plans when NASA uses partnering arrangements such as a cooperative agreement. Furthermore, NASA's risk mitigation plan for the X-33 program provided no mechanisms for ensuring the completion of the program if significant cost growth occurred and/or the business case motivating industry participation weakened substantially.

Communication and coordination were not effectively facilitated. In a report following the failure of the X-33's composite fuel tank, the investigation team reported that the design of the tank required high levels of communication, and that such communication did not occur in this case. A NASA official told us that some NASA and Lockheed personnel, who had experience with composite materials and the phenomena identified as one of the probable causes for the tank's failure, expressed concerns about the tank design. However, because of the industry-led nature of the cooperative agreement, Lockheed Martin was not required to react to such concerns and did not request additional assistance from NASA.

In February 2001, NASA announced it would not provide any additional funding for the X-33 or X-34 programs under its new Space Launch Initiative.

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