X-37B applications & some thoughts on hurdles to X projects

Some speculation on applications for the X-37B: What Could X-37B Do? – DoD Buzz – Dec.3.10. === Once upon a time in the 1990s, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin promised to blacken the sky with X vehicles. However, the sky stayed clear as the agency’s X-33, X-34, and X-38 projects remained stuck on the ground (the X-38 did carry out some drop tests). The X-37 started out as a NASA project in 1999 but was transferred to DoD in 2004. Unlike the uproar over the cancellation of Constellation, the killing of these projects for budget reasons was met with little fanfare.

I’m amazed that the X-37B actually made it to space since innovative space hardware projects have a very high infant mortality rate in DoD as well. Small projects are highly vulnerable to internal battles in big organizations, public or private. Any setback or unexpected technical challenge will be seized on by competing factions and used to pressure management to kill the whole project. The X-37B project is certainly not out of the woods yet. It will need many more successes before we see a reusable spacecraft become a standard part of the Defense Department’s space architecture.

The big dominant programs in NASA and DoD are also rapaciously greedy. It might seem that with, say, a Constellation scale project getting billions there would always be spare change for a few side projects in the few millions range. However, a Constellation program is made up of many sub-projects and their managers are continually begging higher-ups for a few millions more to insure their systems will be built on time to meet the critical path requirements. With delays to crucial components threatening to slow the whole program, it’s very tempting to reach out and kill a X-38 scale project since by definition it’s not the agency’s top priority.

There has been talk of trying to convert NASA into more of a DARPA-like space technology research organization. However, that seems incompatible with the agency’s need for a giant dominant program that aligns all of its disparate “centers” on a commonly held goal. Ultimately anything that doesn’t support that program directly is discarded. In the recent NASA budget debate, the attempt to raise the priority of technology development was met with scorn and derision by those who wanted to save Constellation or to replace it with another destination-centric program of similar scale. Rather than waiting for a cost-effective means of getting there, getting there with what you got will always be the preferred approach when you have tens of thousands of hungry government and contract workers to feed right now.

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