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NASA and contractor Lockheed Martin have announced a plan to complete the controversial X-33 spacecraft, an experimental vehicle intended to demonstrate technologies that might be used in a replacement for the space shuttle. Already over budget and behind schedule, the X-33 ran into serious trouble in late 1999 when one of its liquid hydrogen fuel tanks failed during a test. The new plan calls for replacing the original hydrogen tanks, which were made of a lightweight layered composite material, with more conventional aluminum tanks. “The aluminum tank design still permits us to realize our near-term vision of demonstrating the technologies for a reusable, single-stage next-generation launch vehicle,” X-33 program manager Gene Austin said. The redesigned spacecraft is scheduled to fly in 2003, but that will happen only if Lockheed Martin wins additional NASA funding beyond the $912 million that the space agency has already committed to the project. Lockheed Martin has spent $300 million on the project and is committed to spending $56 million more through March. Critics complain that NASA is investing too much in a high-technology “space plane” when a simpler design would be cheaper and more reliable. “They’re sticking with a dumb design,” said Charles Lurio, an aerospace consultant based in Brookline, Mass. “It’s a road to nowhere.”
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