EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The wingless X-38, a prototype for a space station lifeboat, was dropped from a B-52 bomber and successfully glided to a landing in the Mojave Desert on Thursday in its maiden flight, NASA said.
"It was a smooth landing. Everything went fine," said Fred Brown, spokesman for the space agency's Dryden Flight Research Center.
The experimental craft, which looks something like a speedboat with two tailfins, was unmanned during the test flight.
The B-52, with the experimental craft locked onto it, released the X-38 from 23,000 feet. The X-38 took nine minutes to reach the desert floor, landing on skids rather than wheels.
The craft is the first of several X-38s being built to test technology for a "crew return vehicle" needed for the planned international space station.
The crew return vehicle will be a six-person craft that will attach to the outside of the space station. It would carry crew members home if there were an illness or emergency and a space shuttle wasn't available.
The X-38 has no engines. It employs the "lifting body" concept, using the aerodynamic shape of the vehicle itself to generate the lift that a normal aircraft gets from its wings. It also uses a steerable parafoil -- a giant winglike parachute -- during descent.
A later version capable of operating in space will be tested in a descent from orbit.