Sunday, August 18th 2013 marked the twentieth anniversary of the first flight of one of the most unique, and influential rockets of the space age, one which never reached orbit and was never intended to.
Developed under the auspices of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), the DC-X marked an incremental approach to solving the central challenge of the space age, making space launch affordable. That another organization besides NASA conceived and implemented the project, because in part it believed the agency was incapable of doing so, was a damming indictment on the NASA of the early 1990’s, but, we all make mistakes, and that as they say…was then. But what about now?
It is difficult to evaluate which was the greater accomplishment, the DC-X program’s amazing success, developing and operating the test article on a budget of $70 million between 1900 and 1995; or NASA’s subsequent “now you see it, now you don’t” achievement in sweeping it all away.
To be sure, the DC-X, which was powered by four Pratt and Whitney RL-10A-5 engines, was only a technology demonstrator, and was never intended to achieve what could be realistically termed suborbital flight. And, despite its revolutionary nature in throwing away so many of the conventions of launch vehicle development; massive budgets, large teams, new hardware, it was, like the Shuttle, burdened from the beginning with trying to meet a military requirement; in this case, a complicated “flip over” maneuver to allow for a nose first reentry and large aerodynamic cross range for polar launches.
And, as a technology and program demonstrator, the DC-X did not attempt to address the primary challenge of the Vertical Takeoff / Vertical Landing SSTO approach, achieving a mass fraction which would have allowed larger scale follow on single stage vehicles to reach orbit, and perhaps even carrying a payload. Nevertheless, in its short, episodic life that saw three start / stop series of flight tests, the DC-X demonstrated, much like the SpaceX Grasshopper is doing today, that VTVL represents a realistic and credible approach to RLV development, and one clearly worthy of enthusiastic pursuit.
After taking over and bungling the DC-X project, NASA went its own way with its commitment to Lockheed Martin and a very different approach and arguably more complicated approach in horizontal takeoff and landing with the X-33 / Venturestar fiasco that unlike the DC-X, which at least went down in flames, literally; ended instead with a delaminated fuel tank and a whimper.
It may well be that the actual, practical answer to more affordable launch costs lies not in highly problematic Single Stage to Orbit architectures, but instead in two stage to orbit systems briefly pursued under NASA’s Second Generation RLV program, as well as its strange fling with Kistler Aerospace and the K-1 vehicle, which lasted right up into the current era by winning (and then losing) one of two positions in NASA’s COTS program. Today the quest for re-usability is being pursued on multiple fronts, by companies large and small, but it is clearly most visibly represented by SpaceX.
As for Blue Origin, which is apparently the closest modern adherent to the DC-X design, it is difficult to reach any conclusion about its contribution to the legacy of its forebear, given the company’s near obsessive secrecy. However, considering the fact that Blue Origin has been uncharacteristically vocal about its desire to lease KSC pad 39A for its own use, as well as for undefined other operators, and to prevent SpaceX from gaining exclusive access, if ever there was a time to pull back the curtain and disclose just how far along the company actually is in fielding a flight capable vehicle prior to NASA’s October deadline for making the decision, this weekend would have provided the perfect opportunity for doing so.
NASA, to its credit, is providing some tentative support to RLV work both through its Flight Opportunities Program, its CCDev 1 and 2 awards to Blue Origin, and of course, in a very indirect manner through its ongoing relationship with SpaceX in both the CRS and Commercial Crew programs. Furthermore, no one at SpaceX has been hesitant to give the agency the heartfelt thanks its deserves for its undeniable, and invaluable role in helping the company be where it is today; on the cusp of launching the world’s booster designed to make the evolutionary jump from expendable to reusable operations the Falcon 9 V1.1 / aka Falcon 9-R (reusable).
If NASA, which as an executive agency is bound by the dictates of Presidential administrations, and the funding of Congress, maintains its indifferent approach to directly supporting RLV work in a serious manner, then the least it could do is to continue to support it indirectly wherever possible.
Sometime next year, NASA will make an altogether critical decision as to which company or companies will move on to the final round of the Commercial Crew program. Although many factors must necessarily go into the decision, and crew safety will necessarily be foremost among them, we can only hope that the agency also takes into serious consideration the challenge SpaceX has willingly embraced at its own expense in aggressively pursuing a reusable launch system which is inextricably linked to its Commercial Crew entry. It will be a chance for the agency to put both itself and the nation, back on hot pursuit of a goal which suddenly seemed so very attainable twenty years ago this week.