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X-37A Approach & Landing Technology Vehicle

The X-37 reflected in FY2003 President's Budget was an X-37 Orbital Vehicle. The FY2004 X-37 was an Approach & Landing Technology Vehicle (not the same project).

In early 2002 the Boeing Company completed the composite wings for the X-37 reusable spaceplane at its Huntington Beach, Calif., facility and delivered them to the High Desert Assembly Integration & Test facility in Palmdale, Calif. The wings of this next-generation Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) technology demonstrator are now co-located with the fuselage, produced by the Boeing Phantom Works prototyping center in St. Louis. The complex wings were produced by a Phantom Works composite development team at Huntington Beach using sophisticated, highly controlled machining and bonding processes. The fuselage is constructed of Graphite Bismaleimide (GrBMI), which is a high temperature composite ideally suited for reusable vehicles returning from orbit. GrBMI operates at 450oF, 100F higher than the current aluminum structure of the Space Shuttle, allowing for a thinner and lighter thermal protection system. In addition, the fuselage is primarily bonded together to minimize weight.

On Nov. 25, 2002 Boeing announced that it was awarded a NASA contract to continue development of the X-37 reusable spaceplane and conduct atmospheric and orbital flight tests. Under this $301 million Space Launch Initiative contract, which includes options through 2006, Boeing Phantom Works was to complete the final assembly of the X-37 Approach and Landing Test Vehicle and conduct an atmospheric flight test in April 2004. Then in final assembly at the Boeing Phantom Works X-Vehicle Assembly Facility in Palmdale, Calif., the X-37 is 27.5 feet in length and has a wingspan of 15 feet.

In July 2003 an approach and landing test version of the X-37, a spacecraft designed to demonstrate technologies for NASA's Orbital Space Plane Program, successfully completed structural testing at Boeing's Huntington Beach, CA, plant. The series of ground-based, proof tests were intended to verify the structural integrity of the X-37 Approach and Landing Test Vehicle. The tests apply pressure to the vehicle, simulating flight stresses and loads the X-37 may encounter in flight. The proof tests to validate the structural integrity of the airframe were successfully completed in July 2003. Atmospheric flight tests were scheduled for mid-2004. The purpose is to validate thermal effects during approach & landing (40,000 ft and below) and autonomous approach (no pilot) technology incorporating advanced thermal protection systems and design/ manufacturing techniques.

The X-37 government team was led by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., and also includes NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, Calif.; Kennedy Space Center, Fla.; Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.; Dryden Flight Research Center; and the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

During April 2004, the X-37 Approach and Landing Test Vehicle was to be dropped from a NASA B-52H at 45,000 feet and perform an autonomous landing on an Edwards Air Force Base runway. The test was to verify the X-37's flight dynamics and also extend the flight envelope beyond the low speed/low altitude tests carried out successfully by the sub-scale X-40A Space Maneuver Vehicle during 2001.

On 7 April 2006, the X-37A finally made its first free glide flight. The flight itself was successful, but the vehicle ran off the runway after touchdown, damaging the nose landing gear. The second flight occurred on 18 August, and the third and final one on 26 September 2006.




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