Some Details of Secretive X-37B Space Plane Revealed
The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane prototype, called the Orbital Test Vehicle 1, is primed for its debut launch into space in April 2010.
Credit: USAF

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - An Atlas booster is poised to hurl from Florida the reusable X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle into space ? now projected to be an April 21 launch.

The X-37B orbital space plane, essentially a mini-shuttle, will be placed into Earth orbit and loiter in space for an unspecified period of time. It will then reenter for an auto-pilot landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, or at neighboring Edwards Air Force Base as back-up.

Not much else is known.

It's a tight-lipped affair, with its builder ? Boeing Phantom Works ? pledged to retain vocal silence on the flight ? advising this reporter here that they "defer to the customer" ? the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

Some new details about the X-37B space plane have been made available, provided by Angie Blair, an Air Force spokeswoman for the project during this week's 26th National Space Symposium held here. [Graphic: How the X-37B Spacecraft Works.]

Control center

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) is capable of supporting a flexible range of experiments, Blair said. "The first mission will emphasize proving technologies necessary for long duration reusable space vehicles with autonomous reentry and landing capabilities."

"It's a developmental effort," Blair said, and it's standard practice with many Department of Defense development efforts, "specific details of the OTV capabilities, limitations and vulnerabilities" are classified.

Once launched, the X-37B is designed for space missions of up to 270 days, Blair advised, if everything goes as planned. The space plane was designed for low earth orbits, ranging from 110 to 500 nautical miles, she told SPACE.com.

All that being said, exactly where the vehicle's mission control center is located remains classified.

The long term assignment of a mission control center is dependent upon a successful capabilities demonstration, followed by transition to an operational command, Blair explained. "But what we can say is that the X-37B will be operated by contractors under the direction of Air Force Space Command's 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron."

According to a U.S. Air Force website, the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron is the Air Force Space Command's (AFSPC) premier organization for space-based demonstrations, pathfinders and experiments. The unit identifies concepts of employment, training, education and technical skill sets required to field selected future AFSPC missions.

This squadron is developing a core cadre of space professionals to serve as subject matter experts for all future AFSPC space-based endeavors, demonstrate operational utility of selected demonstrations and apply lessons learned from demonstrations and pathfinders for use in future initiatives.

As for program cost, Blair said that the X-37B effort leverages extensive and early Air force, NASA, and Boeing investments. "Details on the funding level remain within the Air Force's classified budget request," she said.

Obscure and mysterious

While there's a high-level of hush-hushness surrounding the flight, what could the X-37B flight imply and what's behind the project?

There could be a trio of rationales, suggested military space specialist, Roger Handberg, Professor and Chair in the Department of Political Science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

The X-37B appears to be a vestige of the 1990s push by the Air Force and NASA for reusable vehicles, Handberg noted. He advised that the project may signify continued U.S. Air Force interest in a rapid response vehicle along the lines of the long-proposed space maneuver vehicle and the X-37B is their best shot for that type program.

"The second explanation is that of bureaucratic inertia in military programs which is why the justifications and cost estimates are so obscure and mysterious," Handberg said. "Once started, programs are difficult to kill especially when the proponents speak of marvelous capabilities analogous to aircraft style operation down the road."

A third reason, Handberg continued, is to think of this effort "as the logical extension of the push into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) where vehicles used for observation have moved into weapon carriers and various of other missions, many classified." Indeed, one could build an architecture linking UAVs and such vehicles to give you truly global reach, he added. 

In the global scheme of things, how might other nations perceive the X-37B flight?

"From the perspective of international observers ? especially in space-aspiring states such as China, the X-37B program just reinforces their view that the U.S. is pushing to gain first mover advantage in rapid response including possible weaponization of space using this vehicle or a derivative," Handberg responded.

Possession of such a capability, Handberg said, would allow the U.S. to, in a sense, threaten other states by our possession of a rapid response capabilities that can ? through payload swap out ? go from peaceful reconnaissance to direct attack on other states' spacecraft.

Commercial profile

Despite all the secrecy and strangeness of the mission, the X-37B flight showcases technologies that may well spill over into the commercial world.

"We do see the launch as good progress in the area of lifting bodies and one which will help demonstrate many of the things that we have been saying for years," said Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC) Corporate Vice President in charge of SNC's Space Systems Group.

SNC is working on development of the winged Dream Chaser, a competitor in NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative.

Sirangelo explained: "We believe that there is a place for lifting body runway landing spacecraft in the commercial and government fleet to accomplish not only International Space Station crew and cargo transport but also to conduct other viable missions, for satellite deployment and other near space operations."

SNC's Dream Chaser plans call for it to also launch on an Atlas booster. United Launch Alliance is on their CCDev team.

"We expect that this [X-37B] launch experience will also help our knowledge of the Atlas's performance relative to lifting body vehicles," Sirangelo told SPACE.com. "The X-37 seems to be focused on military needs and is an unmanned demonstration while we are focusing primarily on a crewed civil and commercial mission profile," he said.