No Mystery Surrounding Newly Returned Space Plane, Air Force Insists

By Stew Magnuson
After 244 days, nine hours and 24 minutes in space, the Air Force’s X-37 B Orbital Test Vehicle landed in California on Dec. 3. During the nine months in orbit, there was much conjecture about the classified payload and the so-called space plane’s intended purpose. Could it be used to deliver weapons to space?
Richard McKinney, undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, insisted that the new spacecraft will be used to conduct experiments on cutting edge technologies that can be returned to Earth where researchers can thoroughly examine them.
This is a “sought after capability” in the space community, he told reporters. Earth-bound programs have the ability to test in an operational environment, then look at components to see how they fared. The Air Force has only been able to do that with space systems on NASA’s space shuttle, which normally flies for a little more than two weeks, he said. The OTVs can fly for up to 270 days.
“It’s a pure and simple test vehicle,” he said.
OTV-1 was launched April 22 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and conducted on-orbit technology demonstrations and experiments in low-earth orbit prior to successful re-entry and landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The aircraft resembles the space shuttle, and like NASA’s soon to retire spacecraft, is designed to land on a runway after its mission is completed. Unlike the shuttle, it is not manned, so it can remain in orbit for long periods.
It is about 29 feet long, about four times smaller than the shuttle. Like its reusable predecessor, it has a cargo bay, it can maneuver in space, and glides to its landing spot. The Air Force can refurbish the spacecraft and launch it again. It also has ordered a second space plane from the contractor Boeing. That is expected to launch in the spring, McKinney said.
The spacecraft was given a command to land and it did the rest autonomously, McKinney said. It brought its solar array inside its cargo bay, re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed without any further instructions. A left tire blew out on the landing strip, but the spacecraft still managed to complete its landing safely, he said. Autonomy is key because there is no way to bring the vehicle in remotely with a joystick, he said.
The inaugural flight was mostly about testing the spacecraft’s abilities. It did have a classified payload, he added. Critics have wondered about the price tag for the program. But how much it is costing taxpayers is conjecture, because the program’s budget is classified.

Topics: Space

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