The National Aero Space Plane Program A Revolutionary Concept

Robert R. Barthélémy, Director, National Aero-Space Plane Joint Program Office

Capt. Helmut H. Reda, USAF, Plans Directorate, National Aero-Space Plane Joint Program Office

PMI Proceedings, 1992, pp. 490-93


The National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) is a look into the future. It is a vision of the ultimate airplane, one capable of flying at speeds greater than 17,000 miles per hour which is twenty-five times the speed of sound (Mach 25). It is the attainment of a vehicle that can routinely fly from Earth to space and back, from conventional airfields, in affordable ways. It represents the achievement of major technological breakthroughs that will have an enormous impact on the future growth of this nation. Most of all, it is a projection of America at its best, as its boldest, at its most creative. It is more than a national aircraft development program, more than the synergy of revolutionary technologies, more than a capability that may change the way we move through the world and the aerospace around it. NASP is a revolutionary technical, managerial, and programmatic concept; it is a possibility of what can be in America.

The NASP program can be described from a technological, programmatic, and environmental perspective. In each case, NASP has departed from the traditional evolutionary path. To achieve the NASP vision, innovative and revolutionary approaches are required. The technical challenges require the synergism of several major technology breakthroughs. The programmatic and environmental challenges require a fundamental change in the development, management, and implementation of this strategic, high-tech program.

The Technical Challenge

The goal of the NASP program is to develop and demonstrate the feasibility of horizontal takeoff and landing aircraft that use conventional airfields,- accelerate to hypersonic speeds; achieve orbit in a single stage; deliver useful payloads to space,- return to Earth with propulsive capability,- and have the operability, flexibility, supportability, and economic potential of airplanes. To achieve this goal, technology must be developed and demonstrated that is clearly a quantum leap from the current approaches being used in today's aircraft and spacecraft.

The NASP demonstration aircraft, the X-30, will reach speeds eight times faster than any other air-breathing aircraft. As it flies through the atmosphere from subsonic speeds to orbital velocities (Mach 25), its structure will be subjected to average temperatures well beyond anything ever achieved in aircraft. While rocket-powered space vehicles, like the ^psce Shuttle, minimize their trajectory through the atmosphere, the X-30 will linger in the atmosphere to use the air as the oxidizer for its ramjet and scramjet engines. The NASP aircraft must use liquid or slush hydrogen as its fuel, which presents new challenges in aircraft fueling, storage, and fuel management. To survive the thermal and aerodynamic environment, the X-30 will be fabricated from a combination of highly advanced materials: refractory composites, metal matrix composites, and extremely high-temperature super alloys. Because no large-scale test facilities exist to validate aerodynamic and propulsion operation above Mach 8, the design and operability of NASP aircraft must be carried out in "numerical wind tunnels" that use supercomputer-aided computational fluid dynamics (CFD). Propulsion systems based on subsonic and supersonic ramjet combustion will propel the X-30, and although these types of engines have been investigated in laboratories, there have been no significant flight tests. In the areas of aerodynamic design, flight control, thermal management, cooling systems, man-machine interface, and many other subsystems, NASP requires a major increase in capability to reach its objectives. The technical and system integration necessary to achieve single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) aircraft operations will be more difficult than any yet attempted and will require a fundamentally new approach to aircraft design. In essence, NASP depends not on a single advance in technology, but on the synergism of breakthroughs in a number of major technical areas associated with aerospace vehicles.

The Technical Response

The NASP program is carefully orchestrated to achieve the technological advances and integration necessary to attain X-30 goals. There are five key areas of technology that are the focus of the NASP development program: engines, aerodynamics, airframe/propulsion integration, materials, and subsystems. Significant development activities are under way, and major advances have resulted. In the first three areas, approaches that were initiated at the start of the NASP program in 1986 are beginning to pay off. The work in materials and subsystems development was substantially accelerated in 1988, and there have been major breakthroughs since then in these critical technologies.

The feasibility and operability of a high-speed propulsion system are the key developments required in the NASP program, and those activities are receiving the greatest attention. The basic engine-approach NASP is a combined ramjet/scramjet air-breathing propulsion system which will provide high-efficiency thrust for much of the region between takeoff and orbit. Various low-speed systems and the use of rocket systems at very high Mach numbers and for orbital insertion are being investigated. Several key materials were identified as being critical to the feasibility of an air-breathing, SSTO aerospace vehicle.

Because of the high-temperature, high-strength requirements of the NASP airframe and engine systems, most of the interesting configurations employed combinations of high temperature titanium aluminum alloys, carbon-carbon or ceramic composites, metal matrix composites, high creep strength materials, and high conductivity composites. Although the development of these material systems has been under way for several decades, the progress being made was insufficient to meet NASP requirements. De~ velopment of all five material systems was accelerated through the formation of a national materials consortium focused on the five material types.

with a greatly enhanced resource commitment. The consortium fabricated, characterized, tested, and developed materials in each category, and significant progress had been achieved in the arena of super alpha 2 titanium alu-minide, titanium-aluminide-silicon carbide metal matrix composites, and oxidation resistance-coated carbon-carbon composites.

The aerodynamics of hypersonic aircraft and aerospace vehicles has been the subject of considerable government, university, and industry attention for the past thirty years. Much is known about this subject, and the NASP program is taking advantage of the wealth of information available in the United States. The aerodynamic requirements of NASP vehicles, however, are extremely stressful and sensitive to small changes in vehicle configuration and performance. In addition, the specific flight regime of the X-30 has not been extensively examined through ground experimentation or flight testing. Because the X-30 itself will examine the aerodynamics of air-breathing aerospace vehicles, effort on the current development program has focused on developing detailed CFD models and on verifying them using several experimental tests. A massive CFD effort, using a significant fraction of the total United States supercomputer capability, is under way to develop experimentally valid models to predict the inlet, combustion, and nozzle operation of the NASP. Three-dimensional, full Navier-Stokes codes that account for real-gas effects, chemical kinetics, and turbulent flow are being refined using shock tunnel, wind tunnel, and archival flight data to predict the critical NASP aerodynamic parameters to well within 1 percent of the desired values.

Because the airframe and engine systems development for the NASP has been pursued by separate organizations, the level of airframe-engine integration required of hypersonic aircraft necessitated a major emphasis in this area. Since the program began, this integration has commanded great attention and has received an enormous amount of government and contractor resources.

Although the previous four areas have demanded most of NASP resources, every subsystem of a hypersonic aircraft will be developed to the point when it will support the testing of an experimental vehicle. Major efforts are required to develop slush and liquid hydrogen systems, cryogenic tankage, fuel delivery systems, heat exchangers, turbopumps, avionics, cockpit systems, flight controls, and the instrumentation required to conduct X-30 research.

The Programmatic Challenge

It has been over eighty years since man first flew and over forty years since aircraft flew supersonically. For the past forty years, airplane speeds have advanced from Mach 1 to Mach 2 with only a few notable exceptions: the SR-71 was capable of Mach 3+ flight, and the rocket-powered X-15 achieved speeds around Mach 6. In general, however, it has taken us eighty years to go from Mach 0 to Mach 2. In contrast, NASP is attempting to increase the speed range of air-breathing airplanes to Mach 25 by means of a ten-year development and demonstration program. During the 1950s and 1960s, much activity was aimed at the exploration of hypersonic vehicles and their possible configurations. Wind tunnels, shock tunnels, and experimental aircraft were fabricated and used to examine the key parameters of hypersonic flight. Unfortunately, that activity ended prematurely in the 1960s, and the development of hypersonic aircraft virtually ceased until the NASP program began. A few government researchers and even fewer university and industry scientists kept the vision alive during those years, but progress in hypersonic has been extremely slow. Although research in the critical areas of materials, CFD, and combustion has progressed because of other demands, the national capability at the beginning of the NASP program was extremely limited, dispersed, and disorganized.

To conduct a challenging program like NASI? an extensive, competent, well-integrated, and focused national team from industry, government, and academia had to be developed. A prime task of the development phase of the NASP program is not only to bring the key technologies to a point that will allow an X-30 airplane, but to form the team required to do the job. In 1990, there were over 5000 professionals working on the NASP program, as contrasted to 250 in 1985. Although the principal goal of the NASP program is to demonstrate an aerospace vehicle capable of aircraft-like operations while achieving single-stage-to-orbit, the program has also become the basis for all hypersonic technology in the United States. Although the program must be focused on the goals of the NASP X-30 demonstrator, it must also generate the technology that will allow a broad basis for future hypersonic vehicles and derivatives of the NASP demonstrator.

The Programmatic Response

Management of the NASP program has emphasized collaborative, participative approaches because the goal of the program is so develop a national team that can lead us into the aerospace era of the Twenty-first Century. From the onset, the government laboratories and centers have been an integral part of the NASP team. Much of the initial expertise on the NASP program resided with government researchers, who continue to play vital roles as consultants, contributors, and evaluators for the program. When the program began, only a few industrial companies and academic institutions had substantial ongoing efforts in hypersonics. These few not only had to be supplemented, but some of the leading aerospace companies had to be added to the field. Five major airframe companies (General Dynamics, Rockwell International, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, and Boeing) and three leading engine companies (Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, and Rocketdyne) received firm fixed-priced contracts and were all heavily involved in the initial stages of NASP. Firm fixed-price contracts are rarely used for research and development efforts, but the Joint Program Office (JPO) realized intense competition existed between contractors regarding who would become the industrial leader for developing future hypersonic aircraft. The contractor selected to design, build, and test the X-30 would have a virtual monopoly on the research data and a tremendous lead to design future hypersonic vehicles. In 1987, McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics, Rockwell, Pratt & Whitney, and Rocketdyne were selected to continue with the program.

Since the beginning of NASI} significant efforts to manage the program using innovative management concepts were made. Joint government/industry decision-making has been a norm for the program. Consortia formation and generic government/industry technology development has been fostered, and very strong associate contractor agreements between all appropriate parties have been affected. In 1988, a materials consortium of the five major companies was formed to accelerate the development of NASP airframe and engine materials. The program was a complete success with major materials advances and excellent cooperation between the companies. The materials consortium success, coupled with the need to develop a strong national industrial base for future hypersonic aerospace systems development, led in late 1989 to the consideration of a single NASP team. Progress and corporate contributions by the three airframe companies and both engine companies had been excellent, and a single team comprised of all five leading contractors seemed highly desirable. Although each company had pursued its own unique configuration approach, a national NASP team would allow a single, synergistic configuration to emerge, and all development efforts could focus on that concept. Another major advantage of a single team would be the guarantee of a broad yet competitive industrial base in the United States for future operational hypersonic and aerospace vehicles. Early attempts to foster such a national team paid off when the program schedule was extended in 1989 by two and a half years. With increased time for research and development, and a spending rate which was essentially constant from 1988 through 1993, the idea of a single, national NASP team took hold. In late 1989, the NASP JPO began procedures to form such a team. The five contractors were most responsive and agreed to form a joint venture partnership through a cost-plus-fixed-fee letter contract. This novel programmatic response was highly beneficial to the successful execution of the NASP Phase 2 research and development (R&D) program.

On the government side, innovative and integrated management has been the program standard. The NASP program actually began in 1981 when Mr. Anthony duPont, an aerospace engineer, convinced Dr. Robert Williams at DARPA that an air-breathing hypersonic aircraft could fly all the way into a low Earth orbit and return. Initial research supported duPont's claims, and in 1984, DARPA conducted a larger study called "Copper Canyon" to validate duPont's concept. The Copper Canyon study agreed with duPont's concept and identified key technological challenges to be overcome. Realizing a long-term financial commitment was required to achieve breakthroughs in multiple, unproven, high risk technologies, DARPA enlisted the participation from potential beneficiaries through a unique five-part memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Air Force, Navy, SDIO, NASA, and DARPA. Each agency and service branch pledged funding, and with the exception of SDIO, assigned people to create a single government program office, the NASP Joint Program Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The five-part MOU also created a NASP steering group composed of high-level DoD and NASA experts, as well as other experts on aerospace, defense, and science. The steering group advised, provided program direction, and served as a source of advocacy to the Congress and administration.

To minimize bureaucratic aspects of a government-funded program, the NASP JPO maintained a manning level of approximately seventy-five people, used streamlined management principles, and operated under specialized management practices authorized by Air Force Regulation 800-29. Several hundred government technical experts throughout the United States assist the contractors to accelerate technology matúration. About 20 percent of the program resources have been, and will be, spent in government R&D efforts. The JPO's principal role has been to focus the efforts of the thousands of personnel in hundreds of companies and universities toward the program goals. Executive direction is provided by a steering group of senior-level DoD and NASA officials, which meets biannually to guide the program. The Joint Program Office is manned with program and technical managers from the Air

Force, Navy, and NASA, and operates as a unified government organization with a strong total quality and high-performing team culture. The common vision for both government and industry partners is the X-30 and the experimental demonstration of the aerospace plane. It is this vision which drives the program and allows this unique programmatic response to be successful.

The Environmental Challenge

The National Environment Policy Act of 1969 requires all major federal programs to consider consequences of their proposed actions that may significantly affect the quality of our environment. Before proceeding to Phase 3 of the NASP program, the public, key decision-makers, and all interested groups will be informed of potential environmental impacts. The NASP program will make gigantic leaps in technology, creating unique environmental challenges. These challenges are being addressed in the NASP environmental impact statement (EIS).

The Environmental Response

The NASP program is very conscious and committed toward protecting the environment. All impacts described in the EIS will be addressed and pro-actively mitigated prior to program implementation. The country's top environmental scientists are investigating all potentially significant impacts of the NASP. They will report their findings in the EIS and respond to questions through public hearings. Their findings, along with lessons learned from the Space Shuttle and other high-technology programs, will directly influence the X-30 vehicle design and ground support system. Actual environmental data gathered during the X-30 flight test program will be incorporated into the design process for follow-on NASP-derived vehicles. Lessons learned from the NASP EIS will lay the basic foundation for future environmental assessments of hypersonic vehicles.

The X-30 environmental program began in 1988 when the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence Environmental Directorate at Norton AFB accepted the task to develop the NASP EIS. In 1989, the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB wrote the initial, "Description of Proposed Action and Alternatives," which describes the NASP Phase 3 program. In 1990, The Earth Technology Corporation, located in San Bernardino, California, United States, was awarded a task-order contract to develop the EIS. The public was first informed of the NASP environmental program in January 1991 when a notice of intent was issued in the Federal Register and major newspapers in the Washington, D.C., and Edwards AFB areas. Public scoping meetings were held in February 1991 at Washington, D.C., and Lancaster, California. At these meetings, the general public and news media were given a one-hour overview of the NASP program followed by a public comment period. Twenty-four people responded with written and oral comments. The public will again have an opportunity to comment on the program when the draft EIS is made available. Comments on the draft EIS will be studied and addressed in the final EIS and then forwarded to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA's Environmental Record of Decision will be an input used by key government officials to decide whether to preceed with Phase 3 of the NASP program.

To assess the environmental impact for Phase 3 of the NASP program, a baseline description was developed. The foundation of this baseline plan follows:

• Final design of the X-30 will occur at the home sites of all five primary contractors and will be integrated by the contractors7 National Program Office (NPO) through an electronic telecommunications network. Approximately 100 to 200 people will be assigned to the NPO for program integration, while the majority of the effort and personnel remain at their contractor home sites.

• Final assembly will occur near the flight test complex at Edwards AFB. Approximately 300 to 600 people will assemble, check out, and ramp test the X-30. Component manufacturing and subassembly will occur throughout the United States. Subassembly, integration, and checkout will occur at the primary contractor sites and the final assembly site.

• Ground testing will occur throughout the United States to take maximum advantage of existing and future ground-seat facilities. New technologies and flight hardware must be appropriately ground seated prior to flight certification.

• The NASP ground support system and flight test complex will be located at Edwards AFB, California, utilizing the test infrastructure from the Air Force Flight Test Center and NASA's Dryden Flight Research Facility. Approximately 1,000 to 3,000 people will be involved in the flight test effort. Flight testing will occur over portions of the continental United States, with each flight's exact geometry dependent on the desired test conditions, weather conditions at Edwards and abort landing sites, X-30 turn radius, availability of instrumented ranges, and noise constraints. Up to 150 missions may be flown to achieve SSTO and gather specific research data.

The existing environmental database for hypersonic vehicles is small and resides primarily within NASA and several DoD laboratories. To maximize quality of the EIS with minimum cost, a national environmental team was formed to take advantage of unique government resources. The team is structured around ten environmental resource areas: physical features, air quality, biologicalAvilderness, cultural resources, infrastructure, land use, airspace, health and safety, socioeconomic, and noise.

Over forty other environmental topics are also being studied, including: encroachment on threatened and endangered species; disturbance to plants, wildlife, and their habitats; airspace congestion,- noise and visual intrusions; socioeconomics,- population changes; impact on public services; disturbance of archaeological and historical sites; impact on Native American activities,-etc. Although the EIS is still being developed, preliminary results indicate only minor impacts exist. The top three environmental topics are: 1) sonic booms, 2) stratospheric ozone depletion, and 3) hazardous materials. These topics are being thoroughly investigated by the NASP Environmental Team through the USAF environmental impact and analysis process and will be documented in the EIS and Environmental Record of Decision.

Initial estimates from two independent studies confirm the X-30 will have a negligible impact on the concentration of stratospheric ozone. (Since the X-30 will use cryogenic hydrogen for fuel and air from the atmosphere as its oxidizer source, water is the primary combustion product.)

NASP has studied the impact of sonic booms since 1989. The NASP design team used these studies to optimize the X-30 ascent profile to minimize the sonic boom impact on the Antelope Valley. As the X-30 accelerates to supersonic speeds, it will remain within specially assigned supersonic corridors which f

Motivating were located in sparsely populated areas to minimize the environmental impact below the flight track. The sonic boom signature within these corridors will be similar to the Space Shuttle's re-entry over-pressures. Beyond those corridors, a combination of flight-path optimization and simple operational constraints will essentially eliminate the perceptibility of a sonic boom on the ground.

NASP designers are also striving to eliminate hazardous materials on the airplane and within the ground support system. However, if they cannot completely avoid such materials, the NASP program will take all the necessary environmental precautions to make sure they are handled and disposed of properly.

The NASP program is an experiment that tests the ability of the United States to work together to achieve revolutionary technology development and effectively translate that technology into viable products. Because it is succeeding in meeting that goal, it has become an example of government-industry collaboration, effective technology utilization, long-range visioning, and focused national commitment. These are the very principles that were at the core of the outstanding progress the nation achieved earlier in this century. They are the same principles that have been so successfully used by our economic competitors during the latter part of this century to capture a significant share of the markets and capabilities that once were ours exclusively. These are the principles for our nation's future growth, and NASP is the foundation for our aerospace leadership in the Twenty-first Century.

The National Aero-Space Plane Program: A Revolutionary Concept

1. The authors state: "Although the program must be focused on the goals of the NASP X-30 demonstrator, it must also generate the technology that will allow a broad basis for future hypersonic vehicles and derivatives of the NASP demonstrator." These two objectives are complementary but could potentially become conflicting. Discuss some of the key characteristics of the objectives of a project.

2. By its characteristics, this project can be called a mega-project. This type of project requires special attention on certain issues. List some of the strategic issues you consider important for this kind of project. Do you think the managers of this project have addressed these issues? How would you define a mega-project?

3. Discuss some of the project benefits that can be highlighted when communicating with the general public about this project.


4. There have been cases of mega-projects (such as the superconducting supercollider project) that have been terminated after several years of work. Discuss the importance of knowing when to terminate an unsuccessful project. Is there a possibility that the NASP project might have the same fate?

5. Identify the stakeholders in this case and discuss their roles in the project.


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