An advanced X-38 prototype International Space Station "lifeboat" floated to a successful touchdown at 11:00 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time today under the world's largest parafoil at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif. This is the sixth free flight test for the X-38 project, ultimately intended to produce a vehicle capable of evacuating a seven-person crew from the station in an emergency.
The landing test, begun at an altitude of about 37,500 feet when the X-38 was released at 10:47 a.m. from NASA's B-52 aircraft, verified recent enhancements made to the X-38's flight control software. The flight also checked advances in the two-stage repositioning deployment of a drogue parachute that initially slows the vehicle from 600 miles an hour to about 60 miles an hour and sets the stage for deployment of the 7,500-square-foot-parafoil wing. The surface area of the parafoil is more than one and a half times that of the wings of a 747 jumbo jet.
Program engineers continued testing European Space Agency-developed software that guides the parafoil, steering the X-38 to a safe landing. After a 13-minute gliding descent, the uncrewed X-38 touched down at a speed of less than 40 miles an hour on the clay surface of Rogers Dry Lake on Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert. Several parafoil maneuvers were performed using the European-developed X-38 software.
"Each flight test of the X-38 incorporates technologies that have never before been used on a human spacecraft -- from satellite-based navigation to electromechanical actuators to the giant parafoil," said X-38 Crew Return Vehicle Program Manager John Muratore. "Every flight gives us invaluable insight into the performance of these technologies during an actual descent and brings us closer to proving them for use in space."
The test was the second X-38 mission using the giant parafoil. The test also was the second flight of an X-38 shape that includes a semicircular cross section aft end, identical to the shape of an X-38 space vehicle planned for a test flight from a Space Shuttle in 2003 and now under construction.
The European-influenced semicircular aft end could allow the X-38 to be compatible with launch on a European Ariane V rocket as well as aboard the Space Shuttle.
The X-38 project is developing technologies that could be used to operate a prototype "lifeboat" for the International Space Station. The project combines proven technologies -- a shape borrowed from a 1970s Air Force project -- with some of the most cutting-edge aerospace technology available today.
Although the United States has led the development of the X-38, international space agencies also are participating. Contributing countries include Germany, Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands, France, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, leads the X-38 program and is building the space-rated test vehicles. The X-38 atmospheric test vehicles were built by Scaled Composites, Mojave, Calif. NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center flight tests the evolving X-38s.