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NASA Scraps Plan for X-33 to Replace Space Shuttle

Aired March 2, 2001 - 2:22 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: For NASA, a mission impossible: Officials with the space agency had high hopes for the X-33. Perhaps you heard about this in the last couple of days: a spacecraft, it was envisioned would some day replace the aging space shuttle fleet.

Since 1996, NASA has spent more than $900 million of your money on the project -- a contractor, another $357 million. Now, though, the X-33 has been grounded without even a test flight.

Space correspondent Miles O'Brien is here.

What is the heck is that all about?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, there are limitations in the world of physics and budgets. And that is what NASA is learning about kind of the hard way today. Let's take a look first of all at this space shuttle.

You're used to seeing it. It's been 20 years now, practically, since the first space shuttle flew. And the concept most of you are familiar with is this: You've got a big orange external tank. You've got some engines down here that are fed by the tank. And then beside that orange tank are those twin solid rocket boosters. They do most of the work in getting the space shuttle up to orbit.

Now, wouldn't it be great, NASA would hope -- and as a matter of fact, anybody who is interested in space travel would hope -- to get rid of all that extra stuff? You have to throw away the tank each time. And you have to drop those solid rocket boosters into the ocean, fish them out and refurbish them. Wouldn't it be nice, the scientists say, if we could just go to space without dropping anything?

Well, let's take a look at the animation as what was thought of. The X-33 project, which first came to light some five years ago, was supposed to look something like this: no extra stuff to drop. They call it single stage to orbit. The concept was: You get to orbit without dropping all those things, you can save a tremendous amount of money, perhaps make it a commercially viable enterprise.

The problem is, they had to do an awful lot of technological number-crunching to make this all work. You had to develop a new kind of engine called an aerospike engine that would have enough thrust. And you have to store all that fuel inside the shuttle body itself, the actual spacecraft's body. And that was very difficult. In order to do that, you had to use composite materials. And the composite materials, when you loaded it up with hydrogen at 450 degrees below zero, well, they failed.

They leaked and they delaminated. So we're left with this: The space shuttle, even though it is aging, is the best bet in town. No one can come up with a better mousetrap. And the talk right now at NASA is, like it nor not with that tank and those solid rocket boosters, we are going to see shuttles fly for at least another 20 years.

Now, what do we get for $912 million? I just got off phone with the head of the Marshall Space Flight Center, Art Stevenson, where all of this was being cooked up. He said: Well, it would be like saying you went to college, didn't get your diploma, and saying you didn't learn anything. We learned a lot.

They also learned a lot about what they can't do. They learned a lot about engines, about composites, about what works, and really, perhaps most importantly, what doesn't work.

WATERS: We'll chalk it off to research and development.

O'BRIEN: I guess you could say that, yes.

WATERS: I happen to think of Chuck Yeager's, his plane that skipped. Wasn't that an X something or another?

O'BRIEN: X-1. That was the X-1. The X-1 was the famous one, the first to break the sound barrier back in the late 40s.

WATERS: So it's shuttle...

O'BRIEN: Get used to seeing the shuttle. The concept...

WATERS: Aging or not.

O'BRIEN: The concept was that this X-33 would lead to a thing called the Venture Star. And it would replace the shuttle in 2025. Instead, we'll be seeing shuttles probably until about 2020 or beyond.

WATERS: So get used to it.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

WATERS: OK, Miles O'Brien.

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