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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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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
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.


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