The X-34 program was designed to help break NASA and the Air Force into space far more often and inexpensively than ever before. In the end, a couple of rocket plane demonstrators were built, but they never managed to reach their full potential. Still, they were part of a wider family of initiatives that led to the Air Force's extremely successful X-37B mini-space flight, which has been on the orbit almost continuously for years. But after the shine on the program, it was quickly faded around the turn of the Millennium, the unique craft found themselves in increasingly dire straits, stuffed in one dilapidated hangar or another, or weathering the harsh desert climate in the open.
At times it even seemed like the X-34s would get a second chance at life, being brought back from the dead for some exciting new space launcher program, but this never materialized. Today, these historic vehicles do not sit in museums or as technical trainers for future aerospace engineers. Through a labyrinth of misfortune, they found themselves rotting in someone's backyard in Lancaster, California, not far from their long-time home at the Edwards Air Force Base.
Here is the fascinating, but tragic story of how the X-34s went from potential harbingers of America's future in space to unwanted backyard junk.
NASA kicked off the program that would lead to the unmanned X-34 in 1
The main goal was to develop a testbed that could quickly test new technologies for a future low-cost reusable space vehicle. In addition, the program would serve as an opportunity for NASA to explore improved management processes for the rapid development and testing of advanced systems.
A major impetus for the program was the desire to lay the foundation for a space access platform that would be significantly cheaper than the space shuttle. NASA wanted to drop the price per pound of payload sent to orbit from $ 10,000 to $ 1,000, according to one official fact sheet. The total cost per flight would be no more than $ 500,000.
In addition, a decade earlier, a tragic accident resulted in the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and her entire crew, an event that had already prompted both by NASA and the US military to begin exploring alternative means of getting into the orbit. After the disaster, NASA only took delivery of one additional Space Shuttle, Endeavor in 1991, specifically to replace Challenger .
Orbital Sciences Corporation subsequently received the contract to build what became known as the X-34. The company rolled out the first vehicle, known as the X-34A-1, on April 30, 1999, and then delivered it to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, now called the Armstrong Flight Research Center, located within the Edward Air Force Base in California