X-37B/OTV spacecraft   (Source: USAF)
U.S. Air Force says that the vehicle will be used purely for scientific research, other nations aren't so sure

NASA 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).

In 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 by.

Despite 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).

According 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 11,000 pounds.

Although 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 landing."

Considering 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.

"The 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 "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."

However, 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," Payton noted.

The 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.

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