Home-Built, Single Prop, Lifting Body Version of the X-38.

Aaron K. Clark

Inspired by the 1960's Wingless Lifting body programs, the X-38 was a prototype crew return vehicle for the International Space Station. At the time the program was canceled, in April of 2002, the first orbital prototype, Vehicle 201, was 80% complete.

This was heart-wrenching for me and other employees at NASA's Johnson Space Center, where for the first time since the Apollo program, a spacecraft was being built in-house.

My project proposal, inspired by Dr. Barnaby Wanifan's Facetmobile (a home-built, lifting body, experimental aircraft) I want to build a single prop version of the X-38. Using readily available software and industry proven techniques in foam-core and carbon-fiber sandwich construction, a single-person version of my favorite lifting body design could be completed in as little as thirty-six months.

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    10 Discussions


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I was very impressed with the X-38 prototype John Muratore showed me in 1998.

    I was skeptical of his claim that it could be designed and certified for "just" $500 Million though.

    It's a pity that it did go way over budget and got cancelled though - it would have been less expensive (and less of a political problem) in the long run if the program had continued.

    By cancelling the X-38 NASA guaranteed that it would have no way for American, European, Japanese, and Canadian astronauts to live aboard the International Space Station starting in 2006. While they could travel to and from the ISS on the shuttle they wouldn't have a lifeboat (the X-38's role) while the shuttle wasn't present.

    As a consequence every single time an American, European, Japanese, or Canadian astronaut is assigned to a long duration flight on the space station (whether they flew to the ISS on the shuttle or Soyuz) it costs the U.S. taxpayer $75 Million - and will continue to do so until one of the U.S. commercial crew transport vehicles becomes operational.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Great idea! Why not put it up on Kickstarter.com and see if you can get it funded?

    Aaron, why not build it as a glider? That way you can spend your resources on the parasail and control software. You can release the craft from high altitudes using a balloon.

    I've got my own X-24 project going (it's been in its early stages for a long time). I'm trying to build small at first to work on my control software. I'll probably use solids to launch up to a couple of thousand feet so that the plane can glide back down, and hopefully land intact.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    As greek as this all is to me, it sounds like a fantastic dream! Good luck!

    Did you ever think you'd live to see these days, when Americans would be the ones hitchhiking into space? I admire your passion for this project. I want to learn more. Good luck!

    5 replies

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Yes unfortunately. Having to rely on another country was always a realistic possibility.

    When the Apollo program was completed in 1975 thousands of aerospace workers were laid off. There were plenty of rockets and spacecraft available (mostly now on display in museums) but not enough money to launch them - or desire.

    In the 1980s and 1990s there were plenty of proposals for successors to the shuttle designed for specific purposes (the Dreamcatcher spacecraft under development for the commercial crew transport proposal is actually one of them) but no money for development. No Congress wanted to give NASA money for any new spacecraft, especially with the incredible cost overruns on the space station. (Remember that Freedom was supposed to cost "only" $8 Billion and the first components were supposed to launch in 1992).

    Adding Russia to the space station project probably saved the space station from cancellation, but on the other hand actually _increased_ the number of launches, complexity, and costs. (On the other hand, adding Russia certainly added extra flexibility and backups. Without Russia the ISS would have to have been mothballed after the Columbia accident and we would have been SOL when there was a leak in the laboratory in 2004).

    Without any replacement spacecraft NASA had to keep the shuttle flying, even if it was just going to be logistics flights to and from the space station after its assembly was complete. So a life extension program was begun to replace obsolete components (electronics designed in the 1970s), find replacements for products which couldn't be used anymore (Freon which was no longer manufactured, etc.) and see what it would take to keep the shuttles flying forever - or until something drastic happened. Dan Germany led a project at the Johnson Space Center called "Shuttle 2020" - literally examining all of the known concerns for keeping the shuttle going until 2020.

    The X-38 project described here would have fulfilled the lifeboat requirements for the space station, but would have still required the shuttle to fly astronauts to and from the space station.

    It took the Columbia accident to whack everybody over the head with a two by four and acknowledge that complicated systems have limited lifetimes, unless you go through an INCREDIBLY expensive recertification (like the B-52 bomber). You can't just keep flying them forever. Even then, some space shuttle fanatics circulated petitions to ignore the accident board's recommendations and keep the shuttle flying indefinitely. (Ironically that still wouldn't have eliminated the dependence on Russia).

    As a result if the American public wants to keep flying Americans in space, there was only one ride available - Russia's Soyuz.

    What should have happened (without any hindsight) is one of three choices when the decision was made to cancel the X-38 program in 2002 -

    1) Take an Apollo spacecraft out of a museum and refurbish it as a long term lifeboat (replace old computers with modern ones, replace fuel cells with batteries, etc.). Fly it within the shuttle's cargo bay and dock it to the ISS before 2006 as the interim lifeboat until funds become available for something else. (instead of what actually happened with the ostrich in the sand approach of ignoring the 2006 deadline).

    2) Hold a commercial competition (similar to what's happening now, only on an accelerated timetable) for any commercial company which wanted to design a lifeboat for the space station, with the goal of having it at least partially functional by 2006.

    3) Develop a Block I lifeboat, based on an improved version of Apollo. At first it's only use is as a lifeboat and it's ready by 2006. The spacecraft is designed from the start for improvements. After it's certified as a lifeboat the next stage is to certify it as a cargo spacecraft. After several flights (and experience) then it becomes an alternate way of carrying people to and from the space station, hopefully before the shuttle retires. This would be the most expensive approach in the long run, but also the best because it would add the capability to fly people to and from the space station independent of the shuttle.

    What should be done now (IMHO of course) is to put a _BUNCH_ more money into the commercial spacecraft - SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada. Give each one enough money to fly a prototype within another two years and be fully operational within three. If necessary put the rocket and spacecraft NASA's developing in house on hold to free up the funds. Remember that every single year the U.S. doesn't have the capability of launching people into space sends about $375 Million of U.S. taxpayer money to Russia.

    After the fly-off competition select the two best spacecraft (safety, mass to orbit, number of crew, cost, reliability, any other factors you want to consider). The best gets 75% of the flights, the second best gets 25%, the loser gets shown the door. Any of the three companies is welcome to also fly spacecraft for commercial purposes. That could be space tourism, enabling smaller countries without their own spacecraft or participation in the ISS to fly (which has already been done by a handful of countries on the Soyuz), automated research without a crew, or whatever folks can conceive of. NASA could even purchase additional spacecraft for automated microgravity research experiments, developing new hardware for future projects, or even dedicated science missions where having a crew is useful (like the shuttle radar mission or ASTRO flights). Having two operational spacecraft adds flexibility and redundancy in case one is grounded for whatever reason.

    Will this happen? I doubt it - Congressional committees seems more content with sending money to contractors in their districts than any long term goals for space exploration.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction


    I agree with everything you said. The CCDev program is the "right" way to go. SLS is called the "Senate Launch System" for this reason.

    We had designed a docking adaptor that would let us mate the the X-38 and use it for launches as well!

    http://ntrs.nasa.gov has some great reports on the X-38. No FOIA Request needed!


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    My understanding was the X-38 was designed for use just as a lifeboat and would be launched to the ISS within the shuttle cargo bay. That's far less expensive than launching on its own (no need for an escape system) and results in a spacecraft launched in hibernate mode (batteries deactivated, seals in place on propellant tanks) so the lifeboat can remain in space much longer, basically staying there until it's needed. In addition, since it's only intended for use as a lifeboat there's less of a requirement for certifications (every nine you add to reliability doubles the cost of your project). Same thing with lifeboats on cruise ships - they're certified to be safe, but don't have to meet the same standards as the ship itself since they're only expected to be used in an unlikely emergency.

    If you add a launch vehicle adapter and rocket you need to certify it for having a crew onboard when it's launched (launch escape system, abort modes, etc.) plus certifying the rocket for launching people (what's being done now with the Atlas V). That adds to the cost.

    Certainly it'd be nice if the X-38 program went ahead and became the Crew Rescue Vehicle and then eventually evolved into a two-way crew transport.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction


    The X-38 was the project demonstrator for the CRV. As Engineers, the folks in building 220 had all kinds of ideas. I am almost positive I saw a DWG file of an X-38 sitting on a Atlas 5. Having said that if I did, it was purely conceptual. And I could be mistaken. If I am, I have probably gotten the ESA's Hemes and its launch adapter mixed up.

    Thanks! This has been one of my favorite projects ever since I saw it in the late 90s. It would amazing to have my own version of this vehicle. If I were to win the contest (and even if not, assuming it gets built.) I plan to release all the STL Files and DWGs I use to make it.