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Bill Gaubatz, of Delta Clipper fame, has passed away

NASA (public domain)
DC-X in flight

Bill Gaubatz, a manager at McDonnell Douglas, is best known in aerospace circles as the project lead of the DC-X/XA project, a vertical takeoff vertical landing sub scale test vehicle that was flown a number of times in the early and mid-1990s. It was hoped that the DC-X would eventually lead to a single stage to orbit space ship, to be named the Delta Clipper, that would carry people and supplies to and from low Earth orbit. Sadly, as Space Politics reported on Monday, Gaubatz passed away on Saturday.

The Delta Clipper program was born during the first Bush administration out of frustration that NASA’s space shuttle had failed to fulfill the promise of cheap access to space. It was a small project, costing only tens of millions of dollars, run by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization under the Defense Department. The DC-X was a one third scale vehicle that tested various technologies surrounding the idea of a single stage to orbit spacecraft that would launch and land vertically just as “God and Robert Heinlein intended.”

The first series of test flights took place in August and September of 1993, with Apollo moonwalker Pete Conrad operating the rocket ship by remote control from a ground station. Then funding ran out due to the winding down of the SDI program under the Clinton administration. More funding was provided by NASA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency and a series of further test flights took place in 1994 and 1995. Each test pushed the envelope, taking the DC-X higher and higher, practicing the take off and landing procedures that the full scale rocket would perform,

Because funding ran out and the DC-X test article was damaged on landing, test flights were ended again. However NASA took over the program, instituted a number of controversial enhancements, including a composite material fuel tank, and flew the new vehicle, DC-XA several times in 1996. The last flight resulted in the test article tipping over and a leaky fuel tank causing a fire that all but destroyed it.

The Delta Clipper might have flown regardless had it been chosen for the X-36 program that was envisioned to create a true SSTO space craft. However NASA choose a design from Lockheed Martin that was of a spacecraft that would launch vertically and land horizontally, much like the space shuttle. Cost overruns and severe technical challenges involving the light weight composite fuel tank caused the X-36 to be cancelled several years later.

Despite the fact that Gaubatz did not live to see the dream of a single stage to orbit spacecraft fulfilled, he did live to see a number of projects both at NASA and the private sector take up the idea of vertical takeoff and landing. Several people who worked on the DC-X project went on to work for Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and is developing a secretive spacecraft that seems to resemble the Delta Clipper.

Other companies, such as Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace, have worked on VTVL rocket ships. NASA itself has developed the Morpheus and Mighty Eagle, both test articles that may lead to smaller SSTO rocket ships that would operate on the moon and Mars. All of these rockets owe much to the DC-X, which first flew over 20 years ago, and to Bill Gaubatz who brought it into reality.

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