Encyclopedia Astronautica

Credit: NASA
American VTOVL test vehicle. The DC-X was an experimental vehicle, 1/3 the size of a planned DC-Y vertical-takeoff/vertical-landing, single stage to orbit prototype. It was not designed as an operational vehicle capable of achieving orbital flight. Its purpose was to test the feasibility of both suborbital and orbital reusable launch vehicles using the VTOVL scheme. The DC-X flew in three test series. The first series ran from August 18 to September 30, 1993, before the initial project funding ran out in late October 1993. Additional funding was provided and a second series was conducted June 1994-July 1995.

The Single Stage Rocket Technology program was an SDIO (Space Defense Initiative Office) programme to demonstrate technology readiness for an SSTO vehicle. The SDIO (Strategic Defense Initiative Organization) issued a call for proposal for design studies of a single stage to orbit launch vehicle in August 1990. Six companies responded, four proposing vertical takeoff concepts (McDonnell-Douglas, Rockwell, General Dynamics and Boeing) and two proposing air-launched concpets (Grumman and Third Millennium). A total of $ 12 million in study contracts were awarded to the four companies proposing VTO designs, reflecting SDIO's preference for VTOL concepts studied in an Aerospace Corporation report of the previous year.

Douglas and General Dynamics proposed VTOVL designs. Boeing's final design was an improved version of its HTHL sled- or rail-launched RASV (Reusable Aerodynamic Space Vehicle) powered by uprated Shuttle Main Engines. Rockwell proposed a VTHL vehicle, similar in layout to the Space Shuttle Orbiter, but with an aerospike engine.

Phase II of the program would consist of fabrication of an 'X' subscale demonstrator and design of a 'Y' prototype vehicle. Reflecting SDIO's predilections, Douglas was finally awarded the $60 million Phase II contract The Douglas DC-X was designed primarily to validate the turnaround and landing maneuver required for the company's complex nose-first entry concept (as opposed to the base entry approach of prior VTOVL SSTO designs). This approach would, the company believed, provide a wide cross range, always attractive to the Air Force for operational reasons. In commercial applications nose-first entry would reduce the loads experienced by the crew and passengers to under 2G, compared with 3G for base-first lifting entries. The DC-X was specifically not designed to demonstrate the most critical issue for any practical SSTO: structural mass fraction

Under a 2-year, $58-million Phase II contract, MDSSC and its team-mates were using a rapid prototype approach to design and build a one-third-size experimental vehicle the DC-X, and ground support and operations systems which, through a series of suborbital flights, was to:

  • Verify vertical takeoff and landing
  • Demonstrate subsonic manoeuvrability
  • Validate "airplane-like" supportability/maintainability concepts
  • Demonstrate rapid prototyping development approach

The program was focused on using existing technologies and systems to demonstrate the feasibility of building both suborbital and orbital RLVs which were able to fly into space, return to the launch site, and be serviced and ready for the next mission within three days. Such a suborbital RLV could potentially support many of BMDO's planned suborbital system tests and experiments. As part of the program, BMDO built an experimental suborbital launch vehicle, officially designated the SX-1 (Spaceplane Experimental), but known as the DC-X (Delta Clipper-Experimental). Results from flight and ground turnaround tests were to have been used in a follow-on program. Follow-on options included an SDIO program to develop a suborbital reusable rocket for SDIO systems testing or a national program to develop a full-scale orbital prototype called the DC-Y.

The SSRT program consists of three phases. Phase I began in August 1990 and consisted of a $12 million design and risk reduction competition. At that time, the program was focused on multiple single stage-to-orbit concepts which were found to be potentially viable, including vertical take off and landing (VTOL), horizontal takeoff and landing (HTOL) and vertical takeoff and horizontal landing (VTHL) configurations. Following completion of Phase I, a two-year $58 million Phase II contract was competitively awarded to McDonnell Douglas Aerospace, Huntington Beach, Calif., in August 1991. The program was subsequently restructured and focused on building the DC-X and enabling suborbital RLVs for potential use by BMDO. The DC-X design emphasised simplified ground and flight operations, vehicle maintenance, rapid turnaround, and operational characteristics that were also relevant to future orbital vehicles. For example, the highly automated control centre for this system was manned by only three people: two for flight operations and one for ground operations and servicing. Successful completion of the DC-X testing in mid 1993 was to form the basis for a Phase III "go/no go" decision by the Department of Defense to develop a follow-on Advanced Technology Demonstrator for support of flight tests and experiments. If a decision was made to proceed with Phase III, the program was to be transferred to another agency.

A systems ground test facility was activated at NASA's White Sands Test Facility (WSTF), and a launch and recovery site at WSMR. The completed DC-X vehicle was tested on a modified propulsion test stand at the WSTF prior to flight testing at WSMR. Maintenance and ground support techniques required for the flight test phase of the program was to be tested, evaluated and refined at WSTF. The aircraft-like flight test program was to began with low altitude hover flights, gradually increasing in altitude and duration, and was to lead to suborbital flights to approximately 5500 m.

Funding was stop-and-go however. By July 1995 the DC-X had completed eight flights in two series, reaching 2500 m. On the eighth flight the aeroshell was cracked in a hard landing.

It was decided to return the vehicle to the Huntington Beach factory for repair and modification to the Delta Clipper Experimental Advanced (DC-XA) configuration. The DC-XA was operated by NASA and the Department of Defense under the Reusable Launch Vehicle program. This had a lightweight graphite-epoxy liquid hydrogen tank and an advanced graphite/aluminium honeycomb intertank built by McDonnell Douglas; an aluminium-lithium liquid oxygen tank built by Energia (Russia); and an improved reaction control system from Aerojet. These improvements reduced dry vehicle mass by 620 kilograms. The flight vehicle, bizarrely renamed by NASA 'Clipper Graham', was tested at White Sands during the summer of 1996, and demonstrated a 26-hour turnaround between its second and third flights, a first for any rocket. After the fourth flight, however, the DC-XA suffered severe damage and the program ended due to lack of funding.

Program Manager for the original SSRT Program was Major Jess Sponable, U.S. Air Force. The prime contractor was McDonnell Douglas Aerospace, Huntington Beach, Calif. The Delta Clipper industrial team consisted of:

  • Mcdonnell Douglas Space Systems Company
  • Douglas Aircraft Co., Long Beach, Calif
  • McDonnell Aircraft Co, St. Louis, Mo.
  • McDonnell Douglas Electronic Systems Co.
  • McDonnell Douglas Missile Systems Co.
  • McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratories, St. Louis, Mo.
  • Pratt and Whitney Government Engines and Space Division, West Palm Beach, Fla.
  • Scaled Composites, Mojave, Calif.
  • Aerojet Propulsion Division, Sacramento, Calif
  • Allied Signal Aerospace Co., Torrance, Calif.
  • General Connector, San Fernando, Calif
  • Eagle Engineering
  • Harris Corp., Rockledge, Fla.
  • Honeywell Clearwater, Fla.
  • Martin Marietta, Denver, Colo.
  • Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm / Deutsche Aerospace, Munich, Germany
  • Fluor Daniel
  • Process Fabrication, Inc., Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
  • Integrated Systems, Santa Clara, Calif.
  • Chicago Bridge and Iron Services, Inc., Oak Brook, Ill.
  • SpaceGuild, San Carlos, Calif.

DC-X Specifications

  • 12 m high, 4.1 m diameter at base, conical shape
  • Empty mass: 9100 kg. Fuelled mass: With full load of propellants:18,900 kg
  • Propellants: Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen
  • Propulsion: Four RL-l0A5 rocket engines, each generating 6,100 kgf thrust. Each engine throttleable from 30% to 100%. Each gimbals +/-8 degrees.
  • Reaction Controls: Four 440-lb thrust gaseous oxygen, gaseous hydrogen thrusters
  • Guidance, Navigation and Control Avionics: Advanced 32 bit, 4.5 mips computer, F-15 Navigation System with ring laser gyros. F/A-18 accelerometer and rate gyro package. Global Positioning Satellite P(Y) code receiver. Digital data telemetry system. Radar altimeter.
  • Hydraulic System: Standard hydraulic aircraft-type system to drive vehicle's five aerodynamic flaps and eight engine gimbal actuators (two per engine).
  • Construction Materials: Aeroshell and base heat shield: Graphic Epoxy composite with special silicone-based thermal protection coating; Main propellant tanks: 2219 alloy aluminium; Main structural supports: aluminium; Landing gear: steel and titanium

The Chief Technical Advisor for the DC-X has noted that reusable launchers, by their nature have intact abort and that do not crash - they have mishaps not failures. Even the several fires and one auto-abort were not flight test failures. In fact, the auto-abort mishap was the first time that a rocket powered unmanned vehicle had ever saved itself from a fiery death. Even the final test which destroyed the vehicle, met all test objectives and had achieved full engine shut-down prior to the one landing gear collapse (due to a very tired, heat exhausted human technician error).

Failures: 1. Success Rate: 91.67%. First Fail Date: 1996-07-31. Last Fail Date: 1996-07-31. Launch data is: complete. Development Cost $: 58.900 million in 1991 dollars in 1991 dollars. Total Development Built: 1.

Stage Data - DC-X

  • Stage 1. 1 x DC-X. Gross Mass: 16,320 kg (35,970 lb). Empty Mass: 7,200 kg (15,800 lb). Thrust (vac): 262.800 kN (59,080 lbf). Isp: 373 sec. Burn time: 127 sec. Isp(sl): 316 sec. Diameter: 3.05 m (10.00 ft). Span: 3.66 m (12.00 ft). Length: 11.89 m (39.00 ft). Propellants: Lox/LH2. No Engines: 4. Engine: RL-10A-5. Status: Out of Production.

AKA: DC-XA; Delta Clipper-Experimental; Delta Clipper Experimental; SX-1; Clipper Graham.
Status: Retired 1996.
Gross mass: 16,320 kg (35,970 lb).
Height: 14.00 m (45.00 ft).
Diameter: 3.05 m (10.00 ft).
Span: 4.10 m (13.40 ft).
Thrust: 223.00 kN (50,132 lbf).
Apogee: 3.00 km (1.80 mi).
First Launch: 1993.08.18.
Last Launch: 1995.07.07.
Number: 8 .

More... - Chronology...

Associated Countries
Associated Engines
  • RL-10A-5 Pratt and Whitney lox/lh2 rocket engine. 64.7 kN. Isp=373s. Throttleable to 30% of thrust, sea level version of RL10. Four engines were built and were used on the DC-X and the upgraded DC-XA VTOVL SSTO launch vehicle demonstrators. First flight 1993. More...

See also
  • DC-X The Space Defense Initiative Office's Single Stage Rocket Technology program of 1990-1995 demonstrated technology readiness for an SSTO vehicle. Despite successful test flights of the DC-X technology demonstrator, no development funding was forthcoming, and designs for prototype and production rockets remained on the drawing boards. More...
  • VTOVL The concept of a reusable single-stage-to-orbit Vertical Take-Off Vertical Landing (VTOVL) launch vehicle that would reenter and return to its launch site for turnaround and relaunch was first proposed by Philip Bono in the 1960's. The appealing simplicity of the concept has been offset by the technological risk in developing it. The problem with any single-stage-to-orbit concept is that if the empty weight of the final vehicle has been underestimated it will not be able to deliver any payload to orbit, or even reach orbit. Since weight growth of up to 20% is not unknown in aerospace projects, this is a very real threat which has made both NASA and private investors reluctant to invest the billions of dollars it would take to develop a full-scale flight vehicle. More...

Associated Manufacturers and Agencies
  • Douglas American manufacturer of rockets, spacecraft, and rocket engines. Boeing Huntington Beach, Huntington Beach, CA, USA. More...

  • McDowell, Jonathan, Jonathan's Space Home Page (launch records), Harvard University, 1997-present. Web Address when accessed: here.
  • "Single Stage to Orbit", Aviation Week and Space Technology, 1991-08-26, page 15..

Associated Launch Sites
  • White Sands White Sands Missile Range occupies an area 160 x 65 km in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico, across the Sacramento Mountain range from Roswell. In the 1930's, Robert Goddard, after surveying weather conditions and population densities, had selected Roswell for his pioneering rocket tests. White Sands, a true desert area, was even more unpopulated than Roswell. German advances in rocketry during World War II impelled the US Army to begin programs to exploit this technology. The White Sands Proving Ground was established for testing German and American long-range rockets on 9 July 1945. Seven days later the first atomic bomb was exploded at Trinity Site, near the north boundary of the range. The first launch of a Tiny Tim rocket was on 26 September 1945. On 11 October a Tiny Tim boosted a WAC Corporal rocket from the tower. This was the first use of Launch Complex 33, later to be used for V-2, Nike, Viking, Corporal, Lance and Multiple Launch Rocket System testing. More...

Associated Stages
  • DC-X Lox/LH2 propellant rocket stage. Loaded/empty mass 16,320/7,200 kg. Thrust 262.80 kN. Vacuum specific impulse 373 seconds. More...

DC-X Chronology

1993 August 18 - . 22:43 GMT - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X.
  • - . Nation: USA. Agency: MDAC. Apogee: 0 km ( mi). Summary: Verified flight control systems and vertical landing capabilities. Reached 46 m altitude in a 59 second flight..

1993 September 11 - . 17:12 GMT - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X.
  • - . Nation: USA. Agency: MDAC. Apogee: 0 km ( mi). Summary: Ascent and landing mode control and ground effects survey. Reached 92 m in a 66 second flight..

1993 September 30 - . 16:28 GMT - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X.
  • - . Nation: USA. Agency: MDAC. Apogee: 0 km ( mi). Summary: Demonstrated 180 degree roll; provided aerostability data. Reached 370 m during 57 second flight. Last test of first series -- vehicle mothballed when SDIO funding ran out..

1994 June 20 - . 14:42 GMT - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X.
  • - . Nation: USA. Agency: MDAC. Apogee: 1.00 km (0.60 mi). Summary: First flight of second series after additional SDIO funding received. Full propellent load; radar altimeter in control loop. Reached altitude of 870 m during a 136 second flight..

1994 June 27 - . 14:36 GMT - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X.
  • - . Nation: USA. Agency: MDAC. Apogee: 0 km ( mi). Summary: In-flight abort after gaseous hydrogen explosion; vehicle demonstrated autoland capabilities. Reached altitude of 790 m during a 78 second flight..

1995 May 16 - . 15:40 GMT - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X.
  • - . Nation: USA. Agency: BMDO. Apogee: 1.00 km (0.60 mi). Summary: Continued expansion of flight envelope; constant angle of attack. Reached altitude of 1330 m during a 124 second flight..

1995 June 12 - . 14:38 GMT - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X.
  • - . Nation: USA. Agency: BMDO. Apogee: 1.00 km (0.60 mi). Summary: First use of reaction control system thrusters; demonstrated change of angle of attack from 0 to 70 degrees. Reached altitude of 1740 m during a 132 second flight..

1995 July 7 - . 13:02 GMT - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X.
  • - . Nation: USA. Agency: BMDO. Apogee: 2.00 km (1.20 mi). Summary: Final flight of second series. Demonstrated turnaround maneuver. Aeroshell cracked during 4 m/s hard landing. Reached altitude of 2500 m during a 124 second flight..

1996 March 15 - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X. LV Configuration: DC-XA.
  • DC-XA Rollout - . Nation: USA.

1996 March 22 - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X. LV Configuration: DC-XA.
  • DC-XA arrives at White Sands - . Nation: USA.

1996 May 4 - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X. LV Configuration: DC-XA.
  • DC-XA Engine Test 1 - . Nation: USA.

1996 May 7 - . Launch Site: White Sands. LV Family: DC-X. Launch Vehicle: DC-X. LV Configuration: DC-XA.
  • DC-XA Engine Test 2 - . Nation: USA.

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