Air Force's Controversial Space Plane's Future Remains Murky

By Stew Magnuson
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Front and center outside of the entrance of the Space Symposium is the Boeing-built plane that pundits in China have called a potential space weapon.
The X-37A orbital test vehicle completed one 227-day mission in 2010, and a another is under way after a second spacecraft was launched in March. It is a reusable spacecraft that is sent to orbit where it can dwell for about 270 days before gliding back to Earth, much like the soon-to-retire space shuttle. The X-37 is about one-fourth the shuttle's size. The Air Force has two vehicles.
Air Force officials have insisted that the space plane is intended as a test bed. It needs to send experimental payloads into the harsh environment of space to ensure that they work properly.
Beijing-based China Daily last year said the plane could be used to deliver weapons and questioned the secrecy behind the program. The experimental payloads are classified. Meanwhile, the Air Force has declined to reveal the cost of the program, including the price tag of the launch. (NASA paid $187 million in 2009 to launch a spacecraft aboard an Atlas 5.)
The spacecraft marked many firsts, not the least of which was the first autonomous landing of a reusable space vehicle when the spacecraft touched down Dec. 3.
The X-37 program began as a NASA project, and was then handed off to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Air Force rapid capabilities office then continued development with the contractor, the Boeing Co. The model displayed at the symposium is actually an X-37 glider that did not fly into space but was dropped from high altitudes three times to validate the technology.
Boeing aerospace engineer Matt Stout said the company brought the X-37 to the conference to show the public what the space plane can do. Whether it has a future beyond the second flight is "all up to the Air Force," he said.
With budget pressures being one of the main topics of discussion at the conference, and the cost of each X-37B mission probably well more than $200 million, it remains to be seen whether the Air Force's reusable space plane is destined for more missions, or a spot in an air and space museum along with its older and larger predecessor, the space shuttle.

Topics: Space

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