is in a bit of bind right now. The space shuttle program is quickly
winding down, and there are just three more missions left before
the program is officially shutdown. As a result, the U.S. will have
to rely on Russia and European nations to ferry astronauts and
supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
another blow to space enthusiasts, President Obama has killed
off any hopes of the U.S. returning to the moon by 2020 with the
cancellation of the Orion program. While some may question the need
for the U.S. to go back to a place that we first sent men to over 40
years ago, many see this as another area where the the U.S. is
"easing off the throttle" to allow other nations to pass on
these lows in America's space program, the U.S Air Force (USAF) is
giving space enthusiasts a bit more hope thanks to its X-37B
reusable spacecraft. The "X" prefix should alert you to
the fact that this is the latest
in a long line of U.S. research aircraft that started way back in
1947 with the X-1 which broke the sound barrier in level flight
(piloted by the great Chuck Yeager).
to NASA, the X-37B has a wingspan of just under 15 feet, a total
length of 29.5 feet, and is 9.5 feet tall. The vehicle weighs over
the program is now being headed by the USAF instead of NASA, the
folks at NASA are still keeping a close eye on the performance of the
X-37B prototype. “NASA has a long history of involvement with the
X-37 program. We continue to monitor and share information on
technology developments," said Gary Wentz of the NASA Marshall
Space Flight Center. "We are looking forward to a successful
first flight and to receiving data from some advanced technologies of
interest to us, such as thermal protection systems, guidance,
navigation and control, and materials for autonomous re-entry and
that the X-37B project is being headed up by the USAF, it's not too
surprising that other nations are worried about the intentions of a
craft that could technically be able to drop weapons from orbit.
problem with it [X37-B] is whether you see it as a weapons platform,"
explained Theresa Hitchens, the Director of the United Nations
Institute for Disarmament Research, to Space.com.
"It then becomes, if I am not mistaken, a Global Strike
platform. There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Global
Strike as a concept."
the USAF says that there should be no reason to worry -- it is not
looking to weaponize the platform or at least it is not publicly
making those intentions known. USAF Space Programs Undersecretary
Gary Payton sees
the X-37B as simply a scientific platform. “What it offers that
we have seldom had is the ability to bring back payloads and
experiments to examine how well the experiments performed on-orbit,"
X-37B is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 19
aboard an Atlas V rocket. Although the USAF has not indicated how
long the initial mission will last, the X-37B can stay in orbit for
up to 270 days before reentering the Earth's atmosphere to land on a
runway just like the outgoing space shuttle.