On Friday, August 16th, once again I found myself setting the alarm for 3:30am to get to Spaceport America for a meeting that started at 8am. This trip was to attend the 20th Anniversary of the first Delta Clipper X, DC-X flight. In 1993, the McDonnell Douglas team, led by Dr. William Gaubatz and astronaut Pete Conrad, brought to the desert a revolutionary program to test the single stage to orbit program funded by the Air Force. The DC-X reunion was organized by the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, led by Kathy Harper and the museum’s Executive Director Chris Orwell. We are fortunate to have the continued dedication of Kathy Harper to this program. She has worked with Bill Gaubatz over the years, and has always been his steadfast supporter in putting these anniversary meetings together.
Why is it important to keep people coming back to remember the accomplishments of this singular program, when there have been so many other space programs? Two reasons, the program happened in New Mexico and the team inspired the leadership of commercial space companies SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace and Masten Space Systems. The technologies involved in single stage to orbit linked some of the “can do” spirit of innovation to what we are doing today at the spaceport. We are the focal state for increasing access to space for mankind. The DC-X had some of the goals of the current space vehicles being developed by Virgin Galactic, XCOR, SpaceX, and Blue Origin, keep the space craft flying by minimizing the turnaround times. Operate as an airline does, within minimal crew on the ground.
On June 7, 1996, I observed one of the eight DC-X test flights. I was invited to the test by the NASA White Sands Test Facility Program Manager, Joe Frieze. It was another one of those get up at 4 am, be at the Hilton Hotel by 5:30am, get out to the launch site by 7am. The cone-shaped reusable launch vehicle, formerly known as the Delta Clipper-Experimental Advanced (DC-XA), was to make its first flight renamed as the Clipper Graham. It was my first experience with a bare bones, stand in the desert and wait, test flight. In those days, there was nothing like what we put together when we have a launch at the spaceport. No burritos for visitors, no tents for students and parents. Those were the days when the government had very strict control over events like a test program flight. Austere surroundings aside, we knew were watching history in the making. Having observers on the site took precious resources because plans had to be made for safety and some comfort, like port-o-potties. Typical for commercial launches, the bare bones ground crew of thirty, prepared the vehicle which was remotely operated. By contrast, it took 30,000 people to prepare the Shuttle for a launch.
The test I observed was short. The DC-X archives indicate, “the Clipper Graham climbed vertically at 170 feet per second to an altitude of approximately 2,000 feet, then flew laterally for 550 feet up range before throttling back its engines and descending tail first onto the desert floor. Duration of the flight was 63.6 seconds. The goal of the program is to demonstrate Single Stage To Orbit SSTO technology that will lead to the development of operational reusable launch vehicles, Dave Schweikle said. These launch vehicles will dramatically reduce the cost of placing payloads into space.”
The June 7th flight was designed to test the guidance, navigation and controls (GNC) systems that used Global Positioning System (GPS) and a ground station to precisely determine the position of the vehicle. I have written previously about the original theories regarding the guidance of rockets, and related navigation technologies developed in New Mexico by Robert Goddard, and tested at White Sands Proving Grounds.
As I sat with about one hundred members of the CD-X team in the hangar of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to space, I saw on the faces of the attendees, they needed this reunion. They did something extraordinary. They built a functioning vehicle, from design to test in two years. Nothing like that had been done before. We are at the beginning of something wonderful again in New Mexico. Soon we will convene the 9th annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS). Dr. Gaubatz is the co-founder of this conference. SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace, Virgin Galactic and Masten Space Systems executives will all be here.