NASA X-planeNASA‘s aeronautics branch aims to ride a new wave of research on the commercial aviation sector’s ambitious environmental goals, to drive the agency back into the business of building and testing full-scale X-planes by the end of the decade.

A full-scale flight research aircraft – provisionally dubbed the “experimental vehicle testbed” (XVT) – is being promoted within the agency to succeed the NASA/Boeing X-48B/C, an unmanned, 8.5%-scale representation of a hybrid wing body airframe.

NASA X-plane

“While we don’t have an X-plane beyond X-48 in the budget profile yet, we’re building the case for why that would make sense,” says Fay Collier, project manager for the environmentally responsible aircraft (ERA) project.

Collier’s project is mid-way through a process that is designed to support a follow-on X-plane programme, but taking the next step is not guaranteed. Arguably the toughest barrier is the question of how to finance such a project.

Although the funding question remains unresolved, the possibility of an environmentally driven X-plane programme would be a stark break from the recent past. NASA has not funded a full-scale, manned X-plane in more than a decade. Moreover, since the early 1980s, X-planes have been focused on evaluating new concepts in high-performance military aircraft, such as fighters, or spacecraft.

A notable exception is the Lockheed Martin X-55 all composite cargo aircraft, a project sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to investigate a new method for mass-producing advanced materials for aircraft structures.

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