Air Force Set to Launch X-37B

Air Force Set to Launch X-37B

In about two weeks, the Air Force is scheduled to launch an unusual payload on an Atlas 5 booster – an automated mini space shuttle. Designated the X-37B, it is the product of a cancelled NASA program to build an Orbital Space Plane (OSP) that was to take crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA terminated that program when President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004 and the ISS fell out of vogue because the money used for ISS and OSP was needed instead to return humans to the Moon and someday go on to Mars.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and later the Air Force continued work on the winged vehicle, which is reportedly about one-quarter the size of the space shuttle. Now called the Orbital Test Vehicle, reports say that it can stay in orbit for up to nine months before returning to Earth with whatever payload it carries. Its mission is classified so there has been no public announcement about what it will carry on its maiden launch April 19 and its future thereafter is uncertain.

The X-37B is one of a long line of experimental (X) air- and space-planes. The X-15 of the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps the best known of the series.

Editor’s Note: As many rue the imminent end of the U.S. ability to launch people into space, one must ask whether X-37B might be a shortcut to reestablishing such a capability. This is only a test flight, of course, and costs and technical risk would have to examined, but perhaps this is a fortuitous convergence of national security and civil requirements that kept one of NASA’s previous human space flight efforts alive despite the erratic course of U.S. human space flight policy.

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