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NASA Picks Langley To Develop Aerospace Plane

February 16, 1986

HAMPTON, Va. (AP) _ NASA has picked Langley Research Center as its headquarters for developing the experimental aerospace plane requested by President Reagan in his State of the Union speech, officials said.

The center would manage aerospace plane research at three National Aeronautics and Space Administration laboratories and work with defense agencies on the project, said Robert A. Jones, who would head the project. Jones, in an interview last week, said officials had already begun setting up the project office.

Research at Langley would be directed toward building an experimental plane that could take off from a runway, fly 25 times the speed of sound and soar into space.

The technology could lead to advanced fighters with space cruising capability, hypersonic commercial airliners, or a successor to the space shuttle, Jones said. ″There’s not a question in my mind as to whether we can do it,″ said Jones. ″It’s really a question of how long it’s going to be and how much it is going to cost.″

NASA estimates it could develop an experimental plane by the mid-1990s for between $2 billion and $3 billion.

The administration has proposed a three-year, $600 million research program under which Langley would get as much as $20 million next year. The proposal may be slashed or even eliminated by Congress, however.

In the last 10 years, Langley investigators have made progress in developing lightweight, heat-resistant metal alloys and composite materials that could be used in the engine and on the surface of a hypersonic airplane.

Langley also has developed a prototype engine that worked at simulated wind tunnel speeds of Mach 4 and Mach 7, four and seven times the speed of sound. ″We’re confident we can go to Mach 12 with the current technology,″ said Ernest Mackley, chief scientist in Langley’s hypersonic propulsion branch.

Technological challenges facing Langley researchers include developing an engine to work at Mach 25, the velocity required for Earth orbit, determining how to circulate hydrogen fuel to cool the engines and designing the airplane with air intake scoops large enough to feed the engine but small enough to exert minimum drag.

Jones said a demonstration aerospace plane could be ready to fly by 1992.

One possible application is the Mach 8 ″Orient Express″ jetliner, mentioned by Reagan, that would fly from New York to Tokyo in two hours.

Another is a successor to the space shuttle: either a large, cargo-bearing ship or a smaller military craft capable of ferrying passengers to a space station or shooting down enemy satellites.

″The first application will be military or a space launch,″ Jones said. ″I don’t think we would have an operating commercial vehicle until the next century.″

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