X29 during a fly test. Credits: NASA

NASA X-Planes: Pioneering The Future Of Aviation

Discover the pioneering world of NASA 's experimental aircraft: X-29, X-34, X-38, and X-59. Uncover their contributions to aviation in this second article
This article is part 2 of 2 in the NASA X-Planes Program serie.
Serie Navigation<< Previous Article: Breaking The Sound Barrier: NASA’s History Of Supersonic Flight <<

NASA ‘s X-Plane program has been at the forefront of aviation innovation, pushing boundaries and revolutionizing aircraft design. This second episode of our serie explores another generation of X-planes like the Grumman X-29, X-34, CRV X-38, and the last one of the family, the Lockheed Martin X-59 QueSST, highlighting their incredible contributions to aeronautical advancements and beyond.

X-29: New concept of flying

The Grumman X-29 was an experimental plane produced in 1984 by Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation. Only two examples were built and a software was developed to manage the special “forward-swept wing technology”. The particular shape of the wings made the plane rather unstable, and it could only fly with constant corrections (about 40 corrections per second) of the computerized flight control system.

The system consisted of three digital computers and another three as backups. Its agility and aerodynamic performance provided crucial insights for future aircraft, influencing concepts like enhanced maneuverability and stealth capabilities.

X29 during a fly test. Credits: NASA
The X-29 during a flight test. Credits: NASA


X-34: From the space and back

Designed to be a low-cost suborbital craft, built by Orbital Sciences Corporation in 1999, the X-34 aimed to revolutionize access to space. Although the program was discontinued, it paved the way for advancements in reusable spaceplane technologies. These included advanced composite structures, a composite fuel tank (for RP-1, the same fuel used by F-1 engines of Saturn V rockets), an advanced thermal protection system, and autonomous flight capabilities.

Numerous revisions to the safety requirements for an unmanned aircraft led to steep cost increases and delayed delivery times, so in March 2001 NASA canceled the program.

X34 on parking spot. Credits: NASA
The X-34 on a parking spot. Credits: NASA


X-38: Crew Return Vehicle

The X-38 CRV (Crew Return Vehicle) prototype focused on developing a cheap solution for crew re-entry vehicles from the International Space Station (ISS). Also considered an emergency spacecraft for leaving the station, the vehicle’s life support system would have had a duration of about seven hours.

X38 after detachment from B52. Credits: NASA
X-38 after detachment from a B-52. Credits: NASA

Built only in five prototypes it managed several tests to understand if such a low-cost project was possible. Its successful atmospheric flight tests brought NASA closer to achieving a safe and reliable means of returning astronauts from space. The project was canceled in 2002 following budget cuts.

X38 during a fly test. Credits: NASA
X-38 during a fly test. Credits: NASA


X-59: Quiet supersonic technology

Going fast is noisy, very noisy. Above all, breaking the sound barrier produces the so-called sonic boom which for a commercial aircraft and the routes it flies is unsustainable, this was one of the reasons for the grounding of the Concorde, an aircraft that leaves its legacy to the X-59.

Air France concorde after take off. Credits: Flickr
Air France Concorde after take off. Credits: astrohans via Flickr

NASA’s latest X-plane, as mentioned before, aims to reduce the sonic boom associated with supersonic flight. By developing advanced shaping techniques and aerodynamic designs, as a method of comparison, the aircraft could generate a sonic boom equal to one-thousandth of that of a conventional supersonic aircraft. Comparable to the noise produced by closing a car door a few meters away. The X-59 tries to make supersonic travel over land realistic once again, revolutionizing commercial aviation.

X59 render ready on the ramp. Credits: Nasa
X-59 render ready on the ramp. Credits: NASA

Legacy and future prospects

NASA’s X-Plane program has left an indelible mark on aviation history. Its groundbreaking concepts and technological advancements have influenced aircraft design, space exploration, and commercial aviation. The X-planes continue to inspire future generations of aerospace engineers, paving the way for new horizons in aviation’s exciting future.

X59 render in fly. Credits: NASA
X-59 render in flight. Credits: NASA

The NASA X-Plane program highlights the agency’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of aviation and space exploration. From the X-29‘s unconventional design to the X-59‘s mission to revolutionize supersonic travel, these remarkable aircraft have set new standards for innovation and covered the way for a future where the sky’s no longer the limit.


Share this article:
Federico Coppola

Federico Coppola

Graduated in history from Federico II University in Naples, passionate about space, writing, and with an incurable dream of flying up through the clouds to reach the stars.
Admin of the Instagram page Italian_space_meme

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *