The tragic story of how NASA's X-34 space planes eventually rotted in someone's garden

The X-34 program was designed to help NASA and the Air Force break into space much more frequently and cheaply than ever before. In the end, two protesters were built, but they were never able to reach their full potential. Nevertheless, they were part of a larger family of initiatives that led to the success of the Air Force X-37B minivan, which has been in continuous orbit for years. But after the brilliance of the program quickly faded at the turn of the millennium, this unique craft found itself in an increasingly difficult situation, locked up in a dilapidated shed or in another, or facing the harsh desert climate outdoors.

Sometimes, it even seemed that the X-34 would have a second chance to live, being brought dead for an exciting new space launch program, but that never materialized. Today, these historic vehicles are not used in museums or as technical trainers for future aerospace engineers. In a maze of woes, they found themselves rotting in someone's garden in Lancaster, California, not far from their longtime home at Edwards Air Force Base.

Here is the fascinating but tragic story of how the X-34s have gone from potential annunciators of the American future in space to unwanted trash from the backyard.

NASA launched the program that would lead to the unmanned X-34 in 1996. The Marshall Space Flight Center, located in the American Arsenal at Redstone, Alabama, was responsible for the project.

The main objective was to develop a test bench for rapid testing of new technologies for a future low cost reusable spacecraft. In addition, the program would provide NASA with the opportunity to explore better management processes to accelerate the development and testing of advanced systems.


The desire to lay the groundwork for a much cheaper space access platform than the space shuttle has been one of the main drivers of this program. NASA wanted to put the price per payload book in orbit from $ 10,000 to $ 1,000, according to an official fact sheet. The total cost per flight would not exceed $ 500,000.

In addition, a decade earlier, a tragic accident resulted in the loss of the space shuttle. Challenger and all its crew, an event that had already prompted NASA and the US military to begin exploring other ways to get into orbit. After the disaster, NASA only received an additional space shuttle, Effort, in 1991, specifically to replace Challenger.

Orbital Sciences Corporation was later awarded the contract to build what became the X-34. The company deployed the first vehicle, known as X-34A-1, on April 30, 1999, and then delivered it to NASA's Flight Research Center in Dryden, now called the Flight Research Center. Armstrong, located at Edward Air Force Air Force Base in California. .


A photo of the deployment ceremony of the X-34A-1 of April 30, 1999.

The X-34A-1 vehicle, which NASA described as a suborbital demonstrator, was just over 58 feet long and had a wingspan of almost 28 feet. It included a lightweight composite cell and various features designed to allow for repeated flights to space, including reusable fuel tanks and specialized thermal protection for high-speed flights. This last armor was also able to survive subsonic flights in bad weather, according to NASA.

The vehicle had a GPS-assisted inertial navigation system and an automated system to monitor the status of its avionics and its integrity, as well as its overall trajectory and flight performance, all the way through. of his mission. The vehicle was equipped with a tricycle landing gear and would land like a normal airplane on a runway.


The X-34A-1 cell at the time of its delivery to NASA.

However, early in a mission, the design of the X-34 would support a tanker aircraft to bring it back to the proper altitude. Once on site, the vehicle would separate from the carrier aircraft and then its Fastrac rocket engine would ignite, propelling it to an altitude of approximately 264,000 feet and following a preprogrammed flight itinerary.

The Marshall Space Flight Center engineers had developed Fastrac, also known as MC-1, internally, as part of a program to manufacture a low-cost rocket engine. NASA then turned to Orbital Sciences to build the engine.

NASA expected the pump-powered liquid fuel rocket engine to propel the X-34s to hypersonic speeds of about 8 Mach. The vehicle would be able to perform at least 25 full missions.

Orbital Science's Stargazer mothership launcher, a modified Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, took the X-34A-1 aloft for the first captive haul flight on June 29, 1999. Two more captive haul tests were conducted. took place on 3 and 14 September. 1999.


Stargazer is carrying the X-34A-1 without a motor during a captivity test in 1999.

Starting in July 2000, NASA conducted a series of unpowered ground tests, in which a tractor truck pulled and released the X-34A-1, allowing it to travel at different speeds. On July 20, 2000, the X-34A-1 rolled at a speed of 5 to 10 miles at the time in two separate passes. Four days later, another pair of tests allowed the vehicle to reach a speed of 15 km / h.

At that time, NASA was planning another six weeks of field testing, bringing the X-34A-1 to over 80 miles per hour. It is unclear whether this test program went as planned. In the same year, the vehicle was scheduled to conduct a total of 27 non-motorized test flights in the White Sands missile range in New Mexico.


The first X-34 during tow tests in 2000.

As NASA continued testing the X-34A-1, Orbital Sciences also built a second cell, called X-34A-2. The plan was to send this example to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where it would receive the Fastrac engine and undergo a series of firing tests, before going on to the Dryden flight tests.

In Dryden, the motorized flight tests would allow the X-34A-2 to reach Mach 2 and Mach 5 speeds. Additional powered flights would then take place at the Kennedy Space Center. Florida. NASA hoped to conduct an average flight test every 14 days and demonstrate its ability to run the vehicle and prepare it for another mission within 24 hours.

With the X-34A-1 and A-2 flight test data, NASA would then evaluate a third cell, the X-34A-3, covering the entire planned flight envelope. Subsequent developments using the X-34's basic design were also planned. The original X-34A-1 has itself received such significant changes that NASA sometimes called it X-34A-1A.

Originally, NASA was waiting for the X-34 to drop from the carrier aircraft and trigger a Rocketdyne Rocket engine holding rocket engine RS-56-OSA, also found in the Atlas II space launch rocket, to fly in a high suborbital position. From that altitude, it would have triggered a third stage that could be consumed with a Fastrac rocket engine, which would carry the payload into orbit.


Dryden technicians are making improvements to the X-34A-1 in 1999.

From the information available, NASA seems to have quickly abandoned this concept of operations for the three X-34As in favor of a simplified suborbital design with Fastrac only. Any X-34 vehicles did not have payloads. However, it was planned to build a larger three-stage X-34B, which would have required a Boeing 747 mothership.

The X-34B, as well as the entire X-34 flight test program, have never been successful. Orbital Sciences has never finished the X-34A-3 either.

In 2000, NASA and Orbital Sciences jointly reviewed the program, its requirements and its testing schedule. Both parties concluded that the test plan posed significant risks to the various internal systems of the vehicle, including its avionics and automated landing system. The ultimate goal of the X-34 was to allow the vehicle to land autonomously against crosswinds with gusts of more than 20 miles an hour, according to NASA.

These risks could result in cost overruns and delays. The Orbital Science contract with NASA, valued at nearly $ 86 million, covered only the design and manufacture of X-34s. The company had invested $ 10 million of its own funds to modify Stargazer, originally intended to lift the Pegasus launch rocket series to carry the new vehicle.


Stargazer carrying a Pegasus XL spacecraft.

Test money, an additional $ 16 million at the end of 1999, was jointly funded by NASA and the US Army, known as the Space Launch Initiative (SLI). SLI was a research and development project aimed at exploring a multitude of technologies related to reusable space launch systems and methods for rapid access to space. SLI has funded research into new rocket engines, reusable rocket boosters and reusable space launchers, such as the X-34, as well as the larger and significantly more complex Lockheed Martin X-33 single-stage in orbit.

In 2001, NASA officially canceled the X-34 program, as well as the X-33 project, to free up SLI funds for other high-priority work. We also do not know whether this decision is due in part to layoffs or competing classified advertising programs. It seems likely that NASA's greatest success with the X-37A and X-40A programs has been a contributing factor.

Despite their nomenclatures, NASA started working on the unpowered X-40A for the first time in 1998, this machine serving as a test bench for the larger X-37A. Boeing deduced the basic form of these two vehicles from the Space Shuttle.


From left to right, the X-37A, the X-40A and one of the X-34As.

The mission profile of the X-37 was also much less complicated than that of the X-34 and its parent ship. The miniature space shuttle would rather roll into space over a commercial launch rocket.

In 2004, NASA transferred the X-37A program to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the US Army, which later became a highly classified project. Two years later, the US Air Force announced the launch of the development of an improved X-37B vehicle.

The service eventually built two X-37Bs and the program has been a major success since then. The OTV pair performed four orbital missions safely. The longest of these missions allowed the vehicle to spend more than 700 days in space.


On April 13, 2010, the first X-37B was loaded into a payload envelope at the Astrotech facilities encapsulation cell in Titusville, Florida, prior to its first orbital flight.

The X-37B's exact mission sets remain obscure, but they still perform secret missions today. One of the OTVs is currently in space for a fifth orbital flight that started in September 2017 and has already lasted more than 525 days.

The X-34s were not so lucky. In 2002, NASA had warehoused the two completed cells, as well as the unfinished parts of the third vehicle and related equipment, in the installation of the North Base 's shadow. Edward. Although there was talk of possibly one or both in the museum base, this has never happened.

The dilapidated shed that contained the two cells was open and exposed to the elements, as well as to birds and other animals. Our friend and aviation photographer Ashley Wallace managed to take some pictures of them in this deplorable state in 2007, which you can see below.

In 2004, the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced that it was looking to use the X-34 as engine test benches to support the development of its own Dream Chaser reusable spacecraft, providing the opportunity for a new lives to people largely forgotten. Vehicles. Despite SNC's interest, the vehicles remained in stock.

We do not know why, but Dream Chaser, which is more similar to NASA's HL-20 personnel launch system concept, eventually ended up using the landing gear of one of these vehicles. During the first free flight of Dream Chaser in October 2013, some of this equipment failed. This caused the lift body to skid off the runway while attempting to land at Edwards, causing significant damage to the vehicle.

Four years earlier, NASA, apparently still interested in the use of the X-34s, had towed both vehicles to Edwards' precision firing range (PIRA), where they would have served as targets for laser designation for the air force. On the firing range, they were even more exposed to extreme changes in temperature and bad weather. Spare parts and portions of the third cell were also disposed of as waste and debris.

At the beginning of 2010, NASA tried to remove them from PIRA, but the efforts were in vain. The vehicles remained on an access road until they were finally moved to another outdoor site in Dryden in May of the same year. Then, in November 2010, NASA moved the pair of X-34 vehicles from this base to the Mojave air and space port. Orbital Sciences would then have investigated whether the vehicles were still viable test beds.


The X-34 on the way to Mojave in 2010.

For aerospace enthusiasts, the thought that the X-34 could be sent back to the flight sparked enthusiasm. This move made the headlines and sparked public intrigue. The vehicles were sitting on the ramp of the civil test flight from Mecca until 2013, when they returned to Dryden.

In 2015, satellite imagery showed that the remains of the X-34 were still what was now known as NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards. They were parked outside among the shackles of other disused test cells that once operated in the legendary facility. Around the same time, X-34 ownership was transferred from NASA to the Air Force.

Google Earth

The two X-34 sits next to the Orbital Sciences Stargazer satellite at Mojave's air and space port in 2012.

Google Earth

The two X-34s, at the top, held out at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in 2015.

Today, the X-34s will no longer call the Armstrong flight test center, but that does not mean that they are proudly located in museums or that they are used by a technical school. Their current resting place is a residential courtyard in the rural area of ​​Lancaster, California, about 25 miles from their former residence at Edwards Air Force Base.

The story of the X-34 has taken a very strange turn in recent years, when the Air Force apparently donated this gear to a museum in Florida. The man who was the point of contact for the museum had to take possession of it, but was not logistically prepared to move it from one end of the country to the other . This would have been a major administrative and operational endeavor, as each State would need special permits to transport the large loads. We can only imagine what the bill would be to ship rocket planes 2,000 miles east, but that was significant.

That's how they found themselves in the backyard of the owner of Quickcrane Inc. of Smith. While the person in Florida was absolutely unprepared for the complex and expensive shipping process, he asked the contractor who had transferred them out of Edwards' land to store them for a month. very little time while he quickly put his stuff in order. According to Smith 's owner, who we spoke to on the phone, what was supposed to be starting a few weeks at most was transformed into several months.

The Florida man disappeared on them, leaving them with space vehicles sitting in pieces in their yard. Then, whenever they were trying to recover the contract or get rid of the vehicles, his lawyers would show up and try to prevent it. Then, as soon as the contact was made, this same legal advisor would inform them that they no longer represented the X-34 buyer.

Back to square one.

It is clear that Smith's Quickcrane owners are not satisfied with the situation and simply want to be paid and have the vehicles removed. But they sit there, a weird oddity to watch for those who drive on their way.

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The gear, which was not in very good condition to start, was subjected to the elements, again, sitting on the grass with their internal components exposed in this yard for quite some time now . Their general condition seems to have deteriorated considerably and who knows what the robbers took from them. Nevertheless, they could at least be used as props to support the nearby filmmaking industry and it's not like there are no nearby places offering this kind of services.

We still do not know who holds the title of these gear or if there is even a title to hold. We find it odd that the Air Force did not intervene to remove the craft or find a new house for them. If these boats were donated, the consignee clearly did not hold his share of the bargain. Frankly, it seems odd that no museum in the area took them for the first time.

We solicited feedback from the Air Force, but at the time of writing, we have not received a response. We will make sure to update this post when we get back.

Meanwhile, X-34s, millions of dollars worth of devices that were once considered potentially transformative for developing faster and cheaper access to space, are now rotting in the most unexpected and unworthy. It's a sad end to what was already a pretty sad life.

Contact the authors: [email protected] and J[email protected]

Editor's Note: Special thanks to our good friend and contributor Matt Hartman of for helping to bring this piece to a successful conclusion.

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