NASA blows up rocket, aborts bid to launch fastest plane

Saturday, June 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ NASA aborted an attempt to set a new speed record for an aircraft Saturday, blowing up a rocket that was to help launch the unmanned X-43A jet.

The jet had been scheduled to make its maiden flight over the Pacific Ocean. A B-52 was to carry it and a Pegasus rocket over the ocean, where the rocket would have ignited and boosted the experimental plane to approximately 100,000 feet before releasing it.

But the booster rocket was ordered destroyed seconds after being released from the belly of the B-52.

``The Pegasus went out of control, it appeared parts were breaking off of it,'' said Alan Brown, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokesman.

The experimental jet was presumed destroyed in the explosion, which occurred at about 45,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

Once launched, the X-43A was designed to then fire its specialized engine _ called a scramjet _ and fly under its own power for 10 seconds, covering about 17 miles. It will then coast to an impact in the water.

NASA had hoped the plane would reach speeds approaching Mach 7 during its fleeting flight, besting the Mach 6.7 record set by the rocket-powered X-15 in 1967.

The X-43A is designed to rely on an air-breathing engine while flying independently. The plane would carry a small amount of hydrogen for fuel, but scoop oxygen out of the atmosphere to combust it. Conventional rockets must carry both fuel and an oxidant.

NASA had hoped the flight would mark the first time an air-breathing plane flew at hypersonic speeds, or faster than Mach 5.

The $185 million experimental project had aimed to fly three of the planes over the next 18 months. Although none of the planes will be recovered, data collected during the flights will be used to build future planes perhaps 200 feet in length. The first piloted prototypes may fly by 2025.

Backers of the technology say air-breathing hypersonic propulsion could help space travel by reducing the need to carry an oxidant aboard, freeing up room for extra cargo.