Image: X-37
NASA file
An artist's conception shows the X-37 space plane in orbit.
By Space News staff writer
updated 9/16/2004 9:12:40 PM ET 2004-09-17T01:12:40

NASA has transferred its X-37 technology demonstration program to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which plans to go ahead with atmospheric drop tests of the prototype space plane next year.

NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said Wednesday that the U.S. space agency would remain involved in the X-37 program, but that DARPA would now be running the show.

Braukus had told Space News on Tuesday that the X-37 program had been transferred to another U.S. government agency, but that NASA could not disclose that agency’s identity for reasons of national security. On Thursday, Braukus said he had since been given permission to identify DARPA as X-37’s new government sponsor.

DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker could not immediately confirm the defense organization’s takeover of the X-37 program.

Is White Knight involved?
News that lead responsibility for the X-37 program was changing hands was first reported by the Desert News, a newspaper covering Mojave, Calif., and surrounding areas. The newspaper also reported that the X-37 would be carried aloft for next year’s drop tests by the White Knight, the Scaled Composites-built aircraft that carried SpaceShipOne aloft in June for its historic manned suborbital space shot.

Braukus said Scaled Composites would be involved in the X-37 approach and landing demonstrations next year, but could not say whether the Mojave-based company would be using the White Knight or some other aircraft. The B-52 aircraft that NASA normally uses for such drop tests would not be used, a decision made by the agency now in charge of the X-37 program, he said. "The cost analysis favored Scaled Composites," Braukus said.

Scaled Composites spokeswoman Kay LeFebvre would not confirm the company’s involvement in the planned dropped tests and referred questions about the White Knight’s role in the X-37 program to American Mojave Aerospace Ventures. That company, a Paul Allen and Burt Rutan partnership that owns SpaceShipOne and its carrier aircraft, recently announced that it would make its first official try for the $10 million Ansari X-Prize Sept. 29.

A telephone call placed to Jeff Johnson at American Mojave Aerospace Ventures was not immediately returned.

NASA's involvement in the X-37 dates back to 1998, when the project was selected as the first of a planned series of flight demonstrators dubbed Future X. At the time, NASA agreed to share the X-37’s projected $173 million cost with Boeing and the U.S. Air Force. After the Air Force announced in 2001 that it would stop funding the project, NASA told Boeing that the company would have to submit a new proposal for the X-37 to be eligible for additional funding.

After persistent prodding from U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., NASA in 2002 awarded Boeing a $301 million contract for two X-37 vehicles instead of one. One of those vehicles would conduct a series of drop tests within the atmosphere, paving the way for the flight of the orbit and re-entry vehicle in 2006.

But NASA directed Boeing in late 2003 to throttle back on development of the orbit and re-entry vehicle, and has since directed Boeing to stop work on that part of the program altogether. X-37 was dealt a further setback earlier this year when a NASA review concluded that the program was not a good fit with the agency’s new space exploration agenda.

Braukus said an orbital X-37 flight remains on hold, but the atmospheric tests are back on track now that NASA has a new partner willing to take the lead on the program. Braukus said NASA has spent $325 million on the program to date.

Boeing spokesman Ed Meme said Sept. 13 that the X-37 program is no longer managed by Boeing NASA Systems and is now under the purview of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems. Eric Warren, a spokesman for Boeing’s El Segundo, Calif.-based operations, could not immediately identify the government agency now in charge of X-37.

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