X-38: Crew Return Vehicle

by NASA Human SpaceFlight

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The X-38 flight vehicle design was proposed as a crew return vehicle for the International Space Station program. The concept for X-38 originated at NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, in 1995 as a possible form of emergency transportation home for the astronauts living on the space station.


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The X-38 couples a proven shape, taken largely from Air Force’s X-24A project from the 1970s, with dozens of new technologies — the world’s largest parafoil parachute; the first all-electric spacecraft controls; flight software developed in a quarter of the time required for past spacecraft; laser-initiated explosive mechanisms for deploying parachutes; and global positioning system-based navigation.

An innovative combination of a shape first tested in the 1970s and today’s latest aerospace technology, the X-38 already is flying in the actual conditions in which it must perform. Since 1997, increasingly complex, unpiloted atmospheric test flights of the X-38 have been under way at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California. An unpiloted X-38 space test vehicle, now under construction at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, will fly aboard the space shuttle in 2003 and descend to a landing independently. The X-38 is designed to fit the unique needs of a space station “lifeboat” — long-term, maintenance-free reliability that is always in “turnkey” condition, ready to provide the crew a quick, safe trip home under any circumstance.

In addition to contributions from companies and NASA centers coast-to-coast, international space agencies are participating with the United States in the X-38’s development. Contributions to the X-38 are being made by Germany, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, France, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland and 22 companies throughout Europe.