A prototype of a spacecraft planned as a 'lifeboat' for crews on the International Space Station passed a major milestone. The wingless X-38, the first new U.S. spacecraft developed in more than 20 years, successfully made its maiden unpiloted flight test. The nine-minute flight of the atmospheric test vehicle took place at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California. The vehicle dove from the wing of a B-52 bomber at 23,000 ft. A series of parachutes slowed its descent. Then a 5,500-sq-ft parafoil--a steerable parachute--billowed out. The X-38 floated to a touchdown on its skids. The craft is the first of several increasingly detailed X-38s being built to test technology for a six-person "crew return vehicle." The X-38 has no engines. It uses the aerodynamic shape of the vehicle to provide the lift that airplanes get from their wings. In 2000, a space shuttle will carry a larger version of the X-38 into orbit. From there it is to plunge back to Earth for a practice landing.
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