A former director of NASA’s Advanced Programs and Advanced Technologies likened the space agency’s plan to test the X-33 space plane as a waste of time. “What NASA wants to do is fly with an aluminum tank and that won’t prove anything,” said Ivan Bekey, a former NASA official, while testifying before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. The X-33 is a small-scale prototype of a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle, which was set to test-launch last year. Bekey said that without a lighter hydrogen-carrying fuel tank, testing the X-33 would defeat the purpose of developing a cost-effective vehicle. Reducing the tank’s weight is critical to fuel efficiency. NASA’s hope for the X-33 is to reduce the present cost of going into space of $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound. NASA is developing composite metal fuel tanks that will be 30 percent lighter but just as strong as aluminum ones. NASA’s Associate Administrator for Aerospace Technology, Samuel Venneri, said NASA intended to continue developing the lighter tank, but did not want to wait. He said the agency would use an aluminum tank for test launching so as not to hold up the vehicle’s overall development. When engineers found metallic layers peeling off of a metal composite fuel tank during a test in November, it forced NASA to push back the X-33 test launch. The X-33 is a NASA and Lockheed Martin $1.7 billion cooperative development project. The vehicle is intended to take the place of the Space Shuttle in ferrying people to space stations at hypersonic speeds.
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