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Scientists ready the X-37B unmanned orbital vehicle. The U.S. Air Force is using the space plane for unknown purposes.  (Source: EPA)

The X-37B sat in a silo earlier today.  (Source: EPA)

As evening set, the super-high tech craft launched in about as stealthy fashion is possible when using an Atlas V rocket.  (Source: EPA)

A rendering shows what the X-37B might look like in orbit.  (Source: EPA)
Is the X-37B the future of space flight? Maybe, but the Air Force sure isn't saying

The X-37B's curious tale began in 1999 when NASA contracted Boeing's Phantom Works (Calif.) division to build an unmanned space airplane.  The project was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in September, 2004.  The NASA X-37A was redesigned in 2006 by a secret U.S. Air Force research unit, completing the current design, dubbed the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).

The craft was recently completed and has a 4.5 meter wingspan with a length of 8.9 meters.  It comes equipped with kerosene and hydrogen peroxide fuel tanks, an experimental bay, a large navigation "brain", and likely other more secret components.

Thursday night the OTV hurled into space in what appeared to be a clean launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  The X-37B OTV was carried on an Atlas V rocket, a relatively inexpensive rocket that has an extremely reliable track record.

What's it doing in space?  Your guess is as good as anyone else's.  And guesses tend to range from "deploying spy satellites" to "maintaining spy satellites".

Speaking to reporters, Gary Payton, Air Force deputy under secretary for space systems, confessed that there was indeed a secretive launch.  He comments, "Well, you can't hide a space launch, so at some point extra security doesn't do you any good."

The OTV will remain in orbit for nine months and then will make a landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.  So is it doing something with spy satellites?  Payton would only guardedly remark, "On this flight the main thing we want to emphasize is the vehicle itself, not really, what's going on in the on-orbit phase because the vehicle itself is the piece of news here."

Payton didn't exact make any bold predictions of success either.  He comments, "In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back for sure.  It depends on the progress we make with the on-orbit experiments and the on-orbit demonstrations."

The X-37B project is the culmination of undisclosed hundreds millions in defense spending.  Will all that investment be worth it?  Only a select handful of Air Force and government officials will be privy to the knowledge to make that assessment.

If there's one thing that's one clear about the X-37B project, it's that it aims to take a different approach to space exploration and utilization.  And it makes it clear that the U.S. isn't ready to relinquish its domination of space quite yet.


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Military > NASA
By Lord 666 on 4/23/2010 9:43:16 AM , Rating: 3
This is the way the Shuttle was meant to be operated.

When the control is under true military control, less nonsense and much faster design times.

I'm all for collapsing NASA to fall under USAF




RE: Military > NASA
By abel2 on 4/23/2010 9:55:55 AM , Rating: 1
amen. enough political shenanigans and commercial bs. just give it to the military and it gets done.


RE: Military > NASA
By mcnabney on 4/26/2010 9:04:58 AM , Rating: 2
I would point out that designing a small unmanned vehicle that is launched on an Atlas V is about as similar to the large, manned shuttle and booster operation that NASA runs as the model rockets that I shot off in high school.

Give credit where credit is due. Manned space flight is hard. Choosing the reusable vehicle route is even harder.


RE: Military > NASA
By ksherman on 4/23/2010 10:02:27 AM , Rating: 1
The huge Stargate fan in me agrees! Remember those painful episodes when civilians got involved?!


RE: Military > NASA
By Spivonious on 4/23/10, Rating: 0
RE: Military > NASA
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 4/23/2010 10:18:43 AM , Rating: 2
No, a lot of the crew come from other branches too, Like the Navy. Watch the movie "The right stuff" it will help you... :)


RE: Military > NASA
By jhb116 on 4/25/2010 6:39:49 PM , Rating: 3
No - NASA garners recruits from all of the services as well from Universities. The military is one of the very few places to get high performance jet pilots.

I disagree with making it a part of the AF. NASA's role, however, should be reduced to a research agency specializing in aero and astronautics. We need an R&D house to push the limits of capabilities which NASA use to be good at when it was "light on its feet" and wasn't drowned in bureaucratic red tape.


RE: Military > NASA
By Yames on 4/26/2010 10:53:39 AM , Rating: 3
NASA has to civilian for several reasons.

One is the projects like the station, which are in part/whole intended to build foreign relations.

But the original reason it was made civilian is that we do not threaten other countries doing space based research over their land, and in cases where a civilian craft needs to land on foreign land/sea.


RE: Military > NASA
By bigbrent88 on 4/23/10, Rating: 0
RE: Military > NASA
By Lord 666 on 4/23/2010 11:19:33 AM , Rating: 5
Right, they TOOK a design and DID something with it versus the committees and academics at NASA.


RE: Military > NASA
By Harinezumi on 4/23/2010 11:38:54 AM , Rating: 4
Then again, we have no idea how much it cost to develop, how much it costs to launch, or how much it costs to operate. Or, for that matter, whether it does what it's supposed to do or how well it does it.

When a civilian agency screws up, the citizens find out about it and can pressure their representatives to do something about it. When the military screws up, it's classified.


RE: Military > NASA
By nafhan on 4/23/2010 1:41:48 PM , Rating: 4
A civilian agency doesn't even need to screw up to get the money taken away from it. You just need a politician willing to transfer money from science to welfare or something that he thinks will get him more votes.
In this case, at least the US is ending up with a reusable launch vehicle, and the time and money put into developing the X-37 isn't getting thrown out the window.


RE: Military > NASA
By 85 on 4/23/10, Rating: 0
RE: Military > NASA
By 85 on 4/23/2010 4:04:51 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
When the military screws up, it's classified.


perhaps, but there are budgets from day one! Even in the classified world there are checks on these things to make sure money isn't being wasted. It's called "Fraud Waste & Abuse"

Besides, if these things weren't in place you would see all the 4star generals covering up sex scandals and driving 911s with USAF government license plates.


RE: Military > NASA
By 85 on 4/23/10, Rating: 0
RE: Military > NASA
By Jeffk464 on 4/23/2010 11:20:04 PM , Rating: 3
ya right, four star generals get driven around and fly on business jets. Like they would lower themselves to driving a Porsche. :)


RE: Military > NASA
By Bateluer on 4/23/2010 1:23:53 PM , Rating: 3
I believe you're misinformed. Part of the reason for the Shuttle Program's massive reduction in effectiveness and number of missions flown was military involvement, basically turning the Shuttle into a space truck.

I'm ex-USAF myself, and there are some things the military does extremely well. Scientific research is not one of them, unless said research can be used for blowing things up.


RE: Military > NASA
By porkpie on 4/23/2010 2:09:50 PM , Rating: 2
"Part of the reason for the Shuttle Program's massive reduction in effectiveness and number of missions flown was military involvement"

Eh? This isn't true at all. The shuttle never met its mission goals because it never met its design goals. It turned out to take far more work, time, and money to refit it between launches than original estimates. In fact, by some estimates recovering components like the SRBs is just a PR move; it would be cheaper and faster to rebuild them from scratch between launches.


RE: Military > NASA
By maven81 on 4/25/2010 10:40:58 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
The shuttle never met its mission goals because it never met its design goals.


And the military had no involvement in those design goals professor? There was a time when ALL military launches were supposed to have been carried out by the shuttle. As in delta and atlas were meant to retired. It wasn't until the shuttle started flying that the USAF realized this wasn't such a great idea, and backed out. (Though it had still launched at least a dozen military payloads in the 80s).
Interestingly this was also true on the soviet side with the Buran shuttle. They did some calculations and realized that the US shuttle could never be as cost effective as it was advertised, so they assumed it was being subsidized due to some nefarious military application. This meant that they duplicated the US design despite the objections of the scientists, who saw no use for such a system.
I suggest you stop talking on this subject before you embarrass yourself further.

(cue whiny know it all response).


RE: Military > NASA
By delphinus100 on 4/23/2010 2:49:17 PM , Rating: 2
And was not the Shuttle originally meant to be a 'space truck?'

One can well argue its actual (as opposed to the originally intended) cost effectiveness, but whether the payloads are Earth satellites (which it did),space station components (which it did), a launcher for unmanned deep space craft (which it did, in the form of Magellan and Galileo) or manned deep space craft (which it did not do, but there were certainly proposals*), it was...a truck.

And trucks are good. We can't do much over the long term, on expendables. We still need a better orbital truck. If the X-37 helps lead to that, it's an outcome to be welcomed.

* http://www.astronautix.com/craft/earccess.htm


RE: Military > NASA
By drycrust3 on 4/23/2010 2:52:03 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
When the control is under true military control, less nonsense and much faster design times. I'm all for collapsing NASA to fall under USAF


I disagree, it comes down to the management philosophy and how much you care about the consequences if something goes wrong. When I worked in a government department (in New Zealand) it was commonly said "this would be done better / differently if this was a private business" because the private company would care about the consequences more than a government department.
If you look at that new multi-role fighter plane, you can see a management philosophy which is "we are right regardless of the consequences", which is just a small step away from a disaster, usually with people loosing their lives, and often with them loosing them in large numbers.
Yes, I realise this is being designed and built by private contractors, but the problem came from the start when the military believed they could build one plane that did everything cheaper than 3 or 4 more or less specialist planes and there weren't any proper checks carried out to ensure it was really feasible. Now they are in the situation where they are spending more and more money and not actually got anything like what they wanted at the start because they didn't think there were consequences.


RE: Military > NASA
By zixin on 4/24/2010 11:41:35 AM , Rating: 2
Obviously you don't know the history of the shuttle. NASA needed political backing for the shuttle and had no choice but to go the military. The air force dictated requirements that required a re-design and made the shuttle so expensive to operate. Besides, you think the military is any better at managing finances then NASA? The only reason we keep talking about NASA is because its records are public. Do you know how much it took to develop the new space plane or how much it took to maintain it and launch it? It might not be much better than the shuttle.


RE: Military > NASA
By maven81 on 4/25/2010 10:46:04 AM , Rating: 2
Because the military never has cost overruns and blown schedules? Are you serious? I suggest you look up some military space programs and see how well they've done. There are missions that are now over 5 years behind schedule and billions over budget. You just don't tend to hear about it since often they get a blank check.

I'll agree with you on one thing... if the civilian program was FUNDED like the military was, then we'd be in business!


RE: Military > NASA
By Yames on 4/26/2010 1:49:54 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, look at the F22 raptor.


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