Gathering Dust

By chance I was in Omaha this week when the news was announced that the X-38 was going on display in the Strategic Air & Space Museum there.  What an interesting and out of the way place to display this remarkable device.  My work schedule didn’t allow me the luxury of a visit to the museum, but then I’ve seen the X-38 up close before.

Disclaimer:  I was a member of an independent review team for the X-38 development for a short period of time.

The X-38 was a tremendously ingenious device lead by a group of talented and unorthodox NASA employees.  Their leader, John Muratore, one of the most gifted systems engineers I have ever known.  These “pirates” who worked largely free of the typical government space bureaucracy in a skunk works type environment.  Free to innovate, free to be highly flexible, co-located with the hardware, they were on the brink of a stunning technological achievement when politics intervened.

The X-38 was a lifting body spacecraft that was to serve as the International Space Station’s lifeboat.  It was the prototype of the Crew Rescue Vehicle, the CRV.  If it had been allowed to succeed, it would have been an alternative to the Russian Soyuz in that role.  As a spacecraft it was the potentially evolvable beginning of new space taxis that would have been able to provide alternate ways to get humans to low earth orbit and back.  Again, eliminating our sole reliance on the venerable Soyuz, but also providing a way to rotate crews without the Shuttle – which we so desperately needed after Columbia.  And the X-38 would have preceded the proposed commercial human launch vehicles by almost a decade.

Unfortunately, new political leadership inside the beltway thought that NASA’s only problem was not being able to do our accounting in line with the arcane rules proposed by the OMB.  The new political leadership – which by their own admission – knew nothing about the technical aspects of getting into space – needed a scapegoat, an example, something that they could “cut” to show that they were serious about keeping NASA financially in line.

So they picked the brightest star of the future of human spacecraft and killed it with extreme prejudice.

A few years later, in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, Admiral Gehman stated that the failure to replace the Shuttle with something safer was “a failure of national leadership.”  The cancellation of the X-38 is exhibit A of that failure.

So if you get to Nebraska (Nebraska?!?) go out to the museum and see the nearly flight ready X-38 vehicle there.  Think about how the history of the last decade in space exploration might have been different if the mindset inside the DC beltway was focused on achievement instead of ignorantly punishing the most successful.   Penny wise and pound foolish.

There are many morals that can be drawn from this history lesson.  I leave it as an exercise for the reader to see if you can come to the most obvious conclusions, and how they are still in force today.

Nebraska is a really nice state, and Omaha is a really nice town.  I appreciate them providing a venue for the X-38.

And if you look up John Muratore, you will find him teaching college students about systems engineering.  We need more of that. 

Shame on those people who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

21 thoughts on “Gathering Dust”

  1. Wayne,

    I read your blog with great interest and anticipation; much like a student listening to a favorite lecturer. Even when it makes me want to weep, as this blog entry did.

    I’m not sure where to look for technical leadership in this country. Our large corporations are jobbing out our technical expertise and treating engineers as commodities; no different than a printer or computer or office space. For them, a vision of the future extends no further than the next quarter bottom line.

    NASA is an investment in our future; for pennies a day (a couple bags of chips from the vending machine) an enormous return. I hope we realize this before it is too late.


  2. Personally don’t buy the OMB conspiracy theories. Programs that don’t get canceled 1 year by 1 office always get canceled eventually by another office & there’s nothing to gain in terms of scapegoats. The problem is a general lack of money to do anything including national leadership.

  3. I remember seeing the X-38 on a JSC tour. We started out with the usual trips to the control center (look through the glass) and a long elevated hallway past the big training room with all of the shuttle, etc models (look through the glass). Space program under glass… nice, but kinda ho hum, to be honest.

    Then the tour bus stopped at a smallish metal building at the back of the property. We got out and walked in through the sliding doors and there we were, practically standing in the middle of the work area… there was what appeared to be a full-size mockup (I think it may have been for the parachute test) of the X-38 to the left and a small “show-and-tell” display to the right explaining what the X-38 was all about. It was the only part of the tour that really “connected” with me…

  4. There is one problem with the statements about the X-38. It was intended to be launched by the shuttle, so while it would provide independent return capability it would not have provided alternative human launch capability. They were intended as life-boats stationed at the station for up to three years rather than crew rotation. Of course, the OSP program which was the follow up program did have an independent launcher, although this was only a later variant. Still the X-38 lives on mainly through the LIDS docking system, which is now on Orion.

  5. Yes, it was an example of shoot a project dead to send a message of what NASA shouldn’t be doing. It was shot because it was smart, small talented group run, innovative, fiscally sound, and an example of what NASA could do at the time.

    If what you want is however to signal that innovation should be done either outside of NASA (by say passing it to OSC perhaps), or allowing such projects to be done at a much larger scale at Marshall, than that is what you do.

    There are some people who don’t want to look at anything – they come to their conclusions that it must be bad simply for what it is. E.g. that if it hasn’t accumulated a lot of cost, that must mean it is a lie and most of the work remains to be done. Or that if it gets an advantage due to cleverness, it is a lie because cleverness can’t get such an advantage, so you are really hiding the fact that again you haven’t done anything and just want to play for more time and budget to fiddle with things long term.

    In short, if you look for the bad in something, you will most certainly find it, especially if it isn’t there to begin with.

    Just give the scraps to someone else after its dead, for they can sift through the debris and find any value if you were wrong about it anyways. We don’t have to care because we are always *right*, right?

    It remains to be seen if the people who made this decision to kill X-38 knew anything other than envy and ridicule.

    John is a great leader and a fantastic inspiration. Another in a series of great losses for NASA. Too bad ideology is more important to people nowadays than America’s greatness in space, which is why we as a country have declined so drastically the past 30 years.

    We desperately need and want more like John Muratore and the X-38 crew.

  6. I’m honored to have been one of John’s students while he was an adjunct professor at Rice. I took his Flight Test Engineering class, where he gave us quite a few practical lessons from his experience with the X-38. He was also more than happy to take one-on-one time with me to discuss my career plans and share his views.

    I wish him well in his most recent endeavor as a full-time professor at the University of Tennessee Space Institute. His students are lucky to have him.

  7. I, too had the “show and tell” tour of the X-38 facility and mockup. It was like a big “toy shop” as it was described to me. What a joy to see the glow of inspiration on their faces! Luckily, I was assisting a group of bright engineers, some who’ve since become NASA engineers. I was happy to help. We do need more Muratores in the world.

  8. I saw the vehicle up close when visiting JSC on business and even got to talk to some of the engineers working on the re-entry guidance. It was a good design that should have been allowed to continue its course.

    But to be clear, Sean O’Keefe is, I believe, the Administrator who killed X-38. One of his many lasting legacies.

  9. The elected leadership of democracies is almost devoid of engineers and scientists. Incoherent national technology programs are par for the course.

    If a government in Australia wants to inquire into something of a technical nature, it appoints a lawyer – never an engineer or scientist. An Augustine style inquiry is not possible in Australia.

    China, at the top level, is run by engineers. It has different problems.

    The best performing countries of the future will be the democracies who can fill a third of their elected positions with engineers and scientists.

  10. X38 was a waste of money as it was a single purpose vehicle for IIS rescue. The X33 was also a waste of money and time. The Billions sunk into those projects would have been better spent on a basic capsule design like the current proposed Orion that could fit the Shuttle cargo bay – max 15ft diameter – so only slightly smaller than the current proposed Orion. The Apollo capsule was capable of carrying a crew of 5 on short flights and size and weight were within Shuttle capabilities – so something between Apollo and Orion capsules would have been a really good solution for IIS and beyond LEO. NASA would have had a multi purpose capsule operational now for IIS rescue, carried to orbit by the Shuttle in the interim, and then could have started earlier on a new launch vehicle to carry the new capsule to LEO and beyond. 5 to 10 years has been lost because of the X38 and X33 programs on getting NASA a new crew capsule vehicle.

  11. Mr. Hale’s comments are very interesting. I am enjoying following the development of our new rockets, Ares I and V and the vehicles, Orion and Altair that will be launched into space by these rockets, but I believe that we have gone a step backwards in our quest of space exploration. We were on the proper path with the X-38 and development of an Orbital Space Plane as vehicles to go in and out of earth orbit. We will need specialized vehicles to travel around the solar system to such destinations as the moon, Mars, asteroids, Lagrange points and someday perhaps to the moons of Jupiter, but not a vehicle like Orion. It makes more sense to separate out the functions of various vehicles to suit their purpose. An interplantery craft would have different functions and requirements than a reentry vehicle to land on earth. Those interplantery vehicles should be built on earth,then launced into orbit by a heavy launch rocket such as Ares V. and then assembled in earth orbit prior to leaving earth orbit towards its destination in space. However, for human travel into low earth orbit we really need a horizontal take off and landing vehicle that is reusable and has a much faster turn around from landing to relaunch than what the shuttle can do. A horizontal take off and landing vehicle should be much safer and more reusable that what we are currently looking at with the Ares I and the Orion capsule. We should use what we have learned from the shuttle program to develop the next generation of space rockets and vehicles to make space travel safer, cheaper, and more accessible to more people as well as pushing ourselves to return to the moon and going to other places in the solar system.

  12. Wayne, the X-38 is not the first and last, as you well know. NASA does make nice Rocket Gardens and museum pieces.

    The important thing is to hope that what was learned will never be lost.

  13. Can somebody do the math and tell me whether a horizontal launch (reusable space plane) is technically feasible? Did Arthur Clarke actually have it right about how LEO should be achieved and how travel to the moon and beyond should actually be accomplished?

  14. But then, X-38/CRV was designed to be carried into orbit in a shuttle orbiter payload bay. If it was a foregone conclusion that Shuttle is dead, X-38 likewise is dead. The same kind of meat-headed thinking is also planning on bringing down ISS by 2016. As usual, politics trump common sense.

  15. Wayne,

    I too know John Muratore well and spent many hours with his team on this project. My expertise is systems engineering and project management, and X-33, like the MCC before it, was a collection of great ideas jammed together without the discipline needed to have confidence in the outcome. It might well have worked as a single purpose demonstrator, but it was devoid of so many of the fundamental elements of real systems engineering. John is full of great stories about why various analyses are not required, but when it comes time to actually stand up and say a system is ready for use (dare I say it – certify it for function) you are way short of what is needed.

    Remember what it took to get the MCC operational after John’s pirates designed it? How many missions were shadowed, then orbit ops before ascent/entry? Remember (do you know) what it cost to have the system reverse engineered so it could be supported?

    John is an exceptionally bright guy. If he only had the wisdom to make systems people could support out of knowledge rather than enthusiasm.

    I am no fan of O’Keefe, but he was not wrong to cancel this program. Rather, GWSA and the others who let John run wild without having an end game to turn the prototype into a usable vehicle are every bit as much at fault.

  16. For what it’s worth I realized DARPA picked up the X-37 program and plans to launch the X-37B with remote control operations and landing. Apparently this will give the Air Force down mass capability not to mention perhaps up mass. Since this is now a black program I doubt the benefits of this will be made available to NASA. From what I can see they upgraded the OMS (if they call them that) engines so it has much greater capability. (Giving them much greater mission flexibility.) With all due respect, somehow the Orion program might get us back to the moon on the cheap but I doubt it’s going to be the way to go much beyond. BTW, my guess is the “black” space budget is tens if not a hundred times that of NASA.

  17. I’ve just seen the TOP 10 SCRAPPED SPACESHIPS documentary on the Discovery Channel. X-38 is one episode. I wonder where would we be if NASA would be free of politics and bureoucracy.

  18. From what I can see of the history of the X-33, the real reason it was killed was a political decision . Most of its technical problems were solved (after the program was killed) enough to show it was technically feasible. Research on it’s history site and other places indicates even when the Air Force wanted to take it over it was killed again from the the highest levels. The implication is that it was interfering with the privatization of space flight specifically the COTS program and a political philosophy.

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