Two abandoned spacecraft are hidden in California's Mojave Desert, and they're not crashed UFOs. These relics were built by hopeful human engineers. Inside a storage building at Edwards Air Force Base is the partially assembled X-33, a prototype space plane conceived by NASA and Lockheed Martin. About 20 miles away, in a building at Mojave Airport, is the Roton, a six-story-tall test vehicle constructed by the now defunct Rotary Rocket Company. Just a few years ago these machines were hailed as the forerunners of a revolutionary new generation of reusable launch vehicles. But these days they're merely sad reminders of a dream unfulfilled.
The dream is a cheap, reliable way to carry people and payloads into orbit. The space shuttle falls far short of that goal: each flight costs about $500 million. The X-33 program was intended to produce a more cost-effective, fully reusable craft that could reach orbit with just one rocket stage. (The shuttle, in contrast, is a two-stage vehicle that jettisons a pair of solid-fuel boosters during its ascent to lessen the mass lifted into space.) But such a craft would have to carry 10 times its weight in fuel, and the technologies needed to reach that goal--such as the use of lightweight composite materials for fuel tanks--proved more troublesome than expected. After five years of effort, NASA canceled the program last year (the total cost: $912 million for NASA, $357 million for Lockheed). Several months later the U.S. Air Force turned down a chance to finish assembling the X-33 but agreed to store the vehicle's parts to save them from the scrap heap.
This article was originally published with the title Has the Space Age Stalled?.