Air Force Will Continue to Launch Mysterious X-37B Space Plane (Updated)
Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, was peppered with questions about its purpose at a gathering of Washington, D.C.-based defense reporters March 22. He remained tight-lipped about the mystery spacecraft’s mission, but did say that the service has no intention of purchasing any more of the winged, reusable vehicles, which resemble a smaller version of NASA’s now returned space shuttle.
“It is doing very well on orbit,” he said. “It has had a successful mission and we are very happy with it.”
The Air Force wants to continue to use the X-37B, he added.
The Air Force has not determined a reentry date yet for the spacecraft currently circling the globe, he added. The Air Force has two vehicles, which are designed to remain in orbit for about 270 days. The first X-37B launched April 22, 2010, and remained in orbit until Dec. 3 that year. The second was sent to orbit March 5, 2011, and has now long exceeded its original 270-day specifications.
The Boeing-built spacecraft began its life as a NASA program, with the Air Force contributing some development funds. It was originally conceived as a vehicle that could robotically refuel or repair satellites. Once NASA decided to drop the program, it was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and then to the Air Force, where it became a top secret, or “black” program.
Shelton said there are no plans to develop a larger X-37B spacecraft.
The Air Force is looking to “sustain this capability for quite sometime.”
“There certainly is no plan that we can afford to increase the fleet size,” he added.
However, when asked to verify that the fleet remained at two vehicles, he said he would have to check on whether or not he can talk about that. His spokeswoman, Col. Kathleen Cook, was not able to immediately verify the number of X-37Bs.
(Update: Space Command spokeswoman Capt. Christina Sukach confirmed that there are only two X-37Bs, and added that a third mission is slated for this fall.)
The Air Force has stated that the X-37B is being used as a test bed, where cutting edge space payloads are being developed. Officials have said that there is great value in testing a payload in the harsh confines of space, and then having it return to Earth where researchers can examine how it fared.
The X-37B’s purpose has intrigued space enthusiasts for the past few years. Amateurs have tracked it over countries such as North Korea and Afghanistan, and at altitudes of about 262 miles, according to the Space.com website. The Chinese press has questioned whether it could be used as a global-strike weapon. A bomb could potentially be placed in its bay, and it could glide to Earth from space and detonate over a target. An independent 2010 report by the Secure World Foundation said there was about a “zero” chance of it being used in this manner. It is most likely being used for remote sensing, the report concluded.
If the vehicle is simply a test bed for unproven technologies, why is its budget classified? The Air Force has other unclassified spacecraft where technologies are tested in operational settings.
“I think there is a good reason to keep that as quiet as we possibly can,” he said.
“If you reveal budgets you reveal sometimes capabilities, the amount of technology that is inserted in a program. It is just a good, strategic national security decision,” he added.
At minimum, each X-37B mission costs $180 million. That is the price to launch it aboard an Atlas V rocket.
Shelton separately addressed the spiraling cost of launching spacecraft. As expensive as that is now, the price tag is expected to increase by about 40 percent, he said.
Rocket engines are driving these costs higher, he said. The only company that can send heavy satellites to orbit for the U.S. government, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin consortium, United Launch Alliance, bought a large number of rockets several years ago to take advantage of the savings gained in a bulk buy. But that inventory is shrinking, and costs have gone way up as the number of launches in recent years has gone down. The industry is facing overcapacity. Engine makers like Pratt & Whitney are trying to consolidate and make their business more efficient, but that takes time, he said.
Upstarts like SpaceX want to break United Launch Alliance’s monopoly by developing a rocket capable of launching large payloads, but Shelton said competitors will have to prove themselves by demonstrating a series of successful missions. Last year, the Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and NASA produced a document with the criteria spelling out what needs to be accomplished before the U.S. government would give a new company a launch contract. The Air Force is risk-averse when it comes to placing billion-dollar satellites aboard rockets, he said.
“A national security payload atop a commercial asset has to be a proven capability,” he said.
For more coverage of national security space programs, check the National Defense Magazine blog April 16-19 for daily reports from the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.