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X-30 National Aerospace Plane (NASP)

There was always the possiblity that the SR-71 follow-on was hidden in plain sight. The program to develop what was called the National Aerospace Plane (NASP), designated the X-30, had its roots in a highly classified, Special Access Required, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project called Copper Canyon, which ran from 1982 to 1985. Originally conceived as a feasibility study for a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) airplane which could take off and land horizontally, Copper Canyon became the starting point for what Ronald Reagan called:<1>

"...a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to twenty-five times the speed of sound, attaining low earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours..."

The next stage of the program, called Phase 2, with Copper Canyon being Phase 1, was intended to develop the technologies for a vehicle that could go into orbit as well as travel over intercontinental ranges at hypersonic speeds. There were no commitments to undertake Phase 3, the actual design, construction and flight testing of the aircraft. The decision to undertake Phase 3 based on the maturity of the requisite technologies, originally planned for 1990, was currently been postponed until at least April of 1993.<3>

There were six identifiable technologies which are considered critical to the success of the project.<3&g; Three of these "enabling" technologies are related to the propulsion system, which would consist of an air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet. A scramjet is designed to compress onrushing hypersonic air in a combustion chamber. Liquid hydrogen is then injected into the chamber, where it is ignited by the hot compressed air. The exhaust, consisting primarily of water vapor, is expelled through a nozzle to create thrust. The efficient functioning of the engine is dependent on the aerodynamics of the airframe, the underside of which must function as the air inlet mechanism and the exhaust nozzle. Design integration of the airframe and engine are thus absolutely critical to project success. The efficient use of hydrogen as a fuel for such a system is another crucial element in the development of the X-30.

Other enabling technologies include the development of advanced materials including various composites and titanium-based alloys which maintain structural integrity at very high temperatures. The enormous heat loads associated with hypersonic flight, sometimes in excess of 1,800 degrees fahrenheit, will necessitate the development of active cooling systems and advanced heat-resistant materials.<4>

Although the NASP effort was announced by President Reagan in his State of the Union address, much of the project remained shrouded in secrecy. Indeed, the paucity of publicly available information on this project was remarkable, given the scope of the effort. This very high level of classification derived at least in part from the core technological innovation that was the genesis of the X-30 project.

Prior analyses of scramjet propulsion systems had concluded that they would only be able to achieve speeds of about Mach 8. At this speed, the thrust emerging from the rear of the plane would be balanced by the heat generated by atmospheric drag and the high temperature of the air as it entered the front of the engine. Thus limited to a maximum speed that was only one-third the orbital velocity of Mach 25, a scramjet-propelled vehicle would need rocket motors to achieve the remaining speed needed to reach orbit. Analyses concluded that such a vehicle would be heavier and more complicated that a conventional rocket.

However, the Copper Canyon project discovered that higher speeds could be achieved through the imaginative use of active thermal management. By circulating, and thus heating, the scramjet's hydrogen propellant through the skin of the vehicle prior to injection into the engine, energy generated through atmospheric drag was added to the thrust of the scramjet, enabling it to accelerate beyond the Mach 8 thermal barrier. Initially, there was optimism that this active thermal management approach would permit speeds of up to Mach 25 using air- breathing engines alone, eliminating the need for rocket propellants to achieve orbit.<5>


The mass saved by eliminating the final rocket propellants had to be balanced, however, against the mass of the active thermal management system. This system became more complex and massive at higher speeds. At some point, the additional mass of the thermal management system needed to continue the acceleration of the air breathing scramjet would become greater than the mass of the rocket motors and propellant needed to continue the ascent to orbit.

As the NASP effort began, analysis suggested that this transition speed, at which rocket propulsion would be more efficient than continued scramjet operations, would be quite high, above Mach 20. Although this fell short of the initial promise of Copper Canyon, it nonetheless suggested that a scramjet vehicle might offer superior performance compared to conventional rockets. Over time, however, as the complexity of the active thermal management system was better appreciated, estimates of the transition speed declined to below Mach 17.<6> This diminished performance significantly reduces the attractiveness of scramjet propulsion compared with all-rocket vehicles.

Though the protection of this technological principle may explain part of the secrecy surrounding the NASP program, studies of the missions that such a vehicle might perform remain even more closely held.

Defining the mission of NASP to attract maximum support and funding has been a tricky business for program proponents. Original cost projections of $3.1 billion dollars have more than tripled, now at approximately $10 Billion total cost for the development of a pair of single-stage-to-orbit vehicles.<7>

A decision to undertake Phase 3 flight testing would have brought total program costs up to as much as $17 billion<8&t;. The target date for the first test flight of the X-30 was pushed back to the 2000-2001 period<9>, 11 years behind schedule and 500% over budget. Many years and a further $10 to $20 billion would have been required for the development of an operational vehicle. Funding this significant increase in a time of general budget cutting is not easy, and program cost overruns and delays in scheduling have made the project less attractive to many supporters.

Though the X-30 was originally touted by the Reagan administration for its civilian commercial applications and as a possible follow-on to the Space Shuttle for NASA<10>, the funding structure of the program tells another story. The Department of Defense was scheduled to fund approximately 80% of the project, or $2.65 out of $3.33 billion over the 8 years of the original project.<11> Budget allocations come primarily from the Air Force, which has seen NASP as potentially having a range of military missions.

The mystery remains of what military mission would justify this level of effort. Or perhaps there is no mystery at all. The X-30 may have been the purloined letter of military aircraft, an SR-71 follow-on hidden in plain sight. This would certainly jibe with the statement of Senator John Glenn, noted earlier and repeated here,<12>

"...what you are talking about on that system, I know what you are talking about. That is many years down the road and is still a very speculative system..."

Such a possibility would also explain the tenacious position of Congressman Dave McCurdy, the only member of Congress at the time to sit on both the Armed Services Committee and the Space and Technology Committee. From 1989 through 1992, McCurdy fought hard for continued funding for and Air Force involvement in NASP.<13>

"It's important to remember that NASP is not a NASA program. NASP is not an Air Force program. It is a national program. We believe that it is important to the country."

Presumably, an SR-71 follow-on would also be a national program of importance to the entire country. These arguments are, of course, predicated on the assumption that the NASP vehicle could fullfill such a defense mission. Concentrating on hypersonic flight in the upper stratosphere, possible military applications of a NASP derived vehicle include:<14>

  • space launch;
  • strategic bombing missions;
  • strategic air defense;
  • reconnaissance and surveillance.

While the reconnaissance and surveillance mission would be similair to the SR-71, closer examination reveals that the possible military applications provide a less than compelling rationale for the NASP effort.

As a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle with a claimed turnaround time of as little as 24 hours<15>, proponents of the Strategic Defense Initiative initially saw the X-30 leading the way to faster, cheaper access to low earth orbit, a critical aspect of lowering the cost of any space-based ballistic missile defense systems.<16> However, as it became clear that the time required for the development of an operational capability would extend far beyond the time horizon envisioned for deployment of space-based anti- missile systems, the SDI program soon lost interest in the NASP effort. A similar disenchantment has emerged within the Air Force and NASA, as the high technical risk of the project has become increasingly clear. What has also become increasingly clear is that the claims made for NASP as a space launch vehicle are eerily reminiscent of the initial claims made for the Space Shuttle in the early 1970s. The assertions that NASP will have airplane-like operating characteristics, with lower costs and fast turnaround times on the ground, are assumptions, rather than conclusions based on detailed analysis.

The potential for using NASP derived vehicles for strategic bombardment, as a hypersonic B-3, has not escaped the notice of the Air Force. Gen. Lawrence Skantze, commander of the Air Force Systems Command, observed:<17>

"We're talking about the speed of response of an ICBM and the flexibility and recallability of a bomber, packaged in a plane that can scramble, get into orbit, and change orbit so the Soviets can't get a reading accurate enough to shoot at it. It offers strategic force survivability -- a fleet could sit alert like B-52s."

The idea of reaching targets anywhere in the world in a an hour or two may be a tempting idea, but the challenge of accurately dropping a gravity bomb while travelling 20 times the speed of sound would be non-trivial. This challenge was eagerly embraced by the Energy Department, however. A Hypervelocity Aircraft- Delivered Weapon is among the five new nuclear weapons concepts currently under study by the Energy Department, as phase one or pre-phase one studies.<18>

"The need for the Hypervelocity Aircraft-Delivered Weapon derives from the ability of such a system to rapidly deliver, or threaten to deliver, nuclear weapons into a theater, while maintaining the launch platform well outside potential defenses. Hypersonic velocities enhance defense penetrability and survivability of the weapon and the delivery aircraft against state of the art defenses, while precision guidance can lead to reduced yield requirements, and consequently, collateral damage."

But a hypersonic aircraft would have high visibility to hostile defense due to its enormous heat signature and non-stealth composition of the fuselage, resembling nothing so much as a barn on fire. This is hardly a major selling point for a reconnaissance aircraft. As a bomber, a NASP derived vehicle would combine the worst features of an aircraft and a missile. With the large signature of an aircraft and the limited maneuverability of a missile warhead, it would provide a ready target for defensive systems.

A third suggested mission for NASP derived vehicles would be as a interceptor for defense of the continental United States. Robert Cooper, Director of DARPA, suggested that it could:<19>

"... fly up to maybe 150,000 to 200,000 feet, sustain mach 15 plus for a while, slow down and engage an intercontinental bomber or cruise missile carrier at ranges of 1000 nautical miles..."

But the elaborate preparations needed to maintain a liquid hydrogen fueled aircraft on alert, combined with the limited maneuverability of this type of vehicle, would limit its utility for this mission. And given the relatively low priority the United States has traditionally attached to strategic air defense, it is doubtful that the large investment required by NASP could be justified on these grounds.

A final application of NASP was as an intelligence collection platform. Robert Cooper suggested that it could provide:<20>

"... a globe-circling reconnaissance system, a kind of super SR-71 that would... get anywhere on the Earth within perhaps half an hour of take-off..." (emphasis added).

But such reconnaissance and surveillance activities of hypersonic craft are constrained by the high speeds and altitudes at which the X-30 or its derivatives would travel. At altitudes nearly three times that of standard reconnaissance aircraft<21> and a fuel cost 3 times that of aviation grade kerosene,<22> it would certainly seem more economical to get information of comparable (or better) resolution from a satellite in low earth orbit, which could make another pass in 90 minutes instead of being forced to return to base for refuelling.<23>

Although some proponents have viewed these military missions as potentially attractive, a Committee of the National Research Council expressed doubts about the operational effectiveness of NASP derived vehicles:<37>

"Another restriction is inherent in the base support requirements associated with cryogenic fuels. They will require a complete departure from conventional airport storage and distribution facilities. For economic reasons alone, we are unable to envision a network of airfields giving the flexibility that today's aircraft enjoy.

"... sustained cruising flight in the atmosphere roughly between Mach numbers 8 and 20 ... is a very stressful flight environment with high skin temperatures, control and maneuvering difficulties, ionized boundaries through which sensors must operate, and high infrared signatures which would make the vehicle vulnerable to detection. For these reasons, we have great reservations about the military utility of sustained hypersonic flight in the atmosphere above Mach number 8."

A draft analysis done at the RAND Corporation was even more pessimistic:<25>

"Grave doubts exist that NASP could come anywhere near its stated/advertised cost, schedule, payload fees to orbit, etc.... On the basis of current knowledge, it is hard to defend previous DoD plans for NASP on the basis of any singular mission utility sufficiently attractive to operators... NASP could do many missions (but none is singularly persuasive)... No compelling "golden mission" exists for NASP."

NASA was disinclined to significantly increase its share of program costs given its current budgetary constraints<26>, and the Air Force, which has borne the brunt of development costs of Phase 2, expressed doubts about the future viability of the program. According to Martin Faga, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space:<27>

"...these are exciting ideas... but they are not ready for commitment."

Clearly, no single vehicle can serve commercial, civil space and military masters at the same time. In spite of efforts to be all things to all people, the NASP remained without a truly credible mission, and ultimately proponents were unable to save it from termination.

The Hypersonic Systems Technology Program (HySTP), initiated in late 1994, was designed to transfer the accomplishments made in hypersonic technologies by the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) program into a technology development program.

On January 27, 1995 the Air Force terminated participation in (HySTP).

NASA's Langley Research Center continues work on hypersonic technologies for air-breathing, single-stage-to-orbit flight. The NASA LoFlyte will test neural-network flight control for hypersonic aircraft.


<1> State of the Union Address, February 4, 1986.

<2> According to project manager Robert Barthelemy. Aerospace America, September 1991. page 6.

<3> United States General Accounting Office. "National Aero-Space Plane: A Technology Development and Demonstration Program to Build the X-30." USGAO/ NSIAD-88-122. April 1988. pages 35-40.

<4> GAO ibid. page 38.

<5> "DARPA Chief Notes Potential of Supersonic Combustion Ramjet," Aerospace Daily, 29 March 1985, page 165.

<6> "NASP Moves at Slower Speed," Military Space, 17 July 1989, pages 1, 7-8.

<7>United States General Accounting Office. "National Aero-Space Plane: Key Issues Facing the Program." March 31, 1992. p.

<8> GAO ibid. page 7.

<9> Defense Daily. April 17, 1992. page 103.

<10>Aerospace Daily. March 28, 1986. page 484.

<11> GAO ibid. page 19.

<12> United States Senate Armed Services Committee, 101st Congress, 1st Session, ibid.

<13> Press release. Office of Congressman Dave McCurdy. June 3, 1991.

><14> Williams, Robert M. "National Aero-Space Plane: Technology for America's Future." Aerospace America. November 1986. page 20.

<15> World Aerospace Weekly. November 11, 1988.

<16> Marshall, Eliot. "NASA and Military Press for a Spaceplane." News and Comment. January 10, 1986, pages 105-107.

<17> Williams, Robert, "National Aero-Space Plane: Technology for America's Future," Aerospace America, November 1986, pages 18-22.

<18> House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, Energy and Water Development Appropriations for 1993, 102nd Congress, 2nd Session, Part 6, pages 1669-1670.

<19> "DARPA Chief Notes Potential of Supersonic Combustion Ramjet," Aerospace Daily, 29 March 1985, page 165.

<20> ibid.

<21> Defense Daily. April 20, 1988. page 295.

<22> Aerospace Daily. March 14, 1992. page 408.

<23> Defense Daily. April 20, 1988. page 295.

<24> National Research Council Committee on Hypersonic Technology for Military Applications, Hypersonic Technology for Military Applications, (Washington, National Research Council, 1989), page 12.

<25> Augenstein, Bruno, Assessment of NASP: Future Options, (Santa Monica, RAND, June 1989), WD-4437-AF.

<26> "The Goldin Age" Space Business News, July 6, 1992.

<27> Inside the Air Force. March 27, 1992. page 3.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:34:30 ZULU