Hypersonic Vehicle Plummets into Pacific Ocean
One of NASA's three hypersonic vehicles was suppose to enjoy its first free flight on Saturday, June 2, 2000. The X-43A vehicle was dropped along with its Pegasus rocket booster from a B-52 bomber plane. The plane took off from Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, CA. After the X-43A and booster rocket were dropped, the rocket was to boost the X-43A to ~100,000 feet before releasing the X-43A for its first free flight. Unfortunately, just a few seconds after ignition of the rocket, a malfunction occurred, causing the X-43A and the booster rocket to go out of control! The flight had to be terminated for safely reasons, so a signal was sent to the vehicle triggering an explosion that destroyed the X-43A and rocket booster. The debris fell into the Pacific Ocean. No injuries or ground damage were reported.
News story originally written on June 5, 2001
These hypersonic vehicles can fly at rocket speeds. Once the X-43A was released from its booster rocket, it was suppose to fly at speeds approaching Mach 7 before splashing into the Pacific Ocean. During this free flight time, the X-43A would have been powered by its own specialized engine, called a scramjet (standing for supersonic-combustion ramjet engine).
Saturday's mission was the first of three such free flight missions for these Hyper-X vehicles. After much investigation of this mishap, NASA will go ahead with the other two flights. Although none of the planes will be recovered (all are scheduled to splash into the ocean), data collected during the flights will be used to build future vehicles that could be used in future space exploration. The X-43A was only 12 feet long with a 5-foot wingspan, but someday hypersonic space traveling vehicles may be over 200 feet long!