With the shutdown of the Space Shuttle, people have wondered “what’s next for the United States space program?” While NASA is busy developing several follow-on programs, the United States Air Force has had its own spaceplane under development. Or rather, it continued developing a NASA space plane.
Meet the X-37B. Built by Boeing, the X-37 program began first as part of a suite of test-beds under the Clinton administration, and then as part of NASA’s Orbital Space Plane(OSP) system, under former administrator Sean O’Keefe. The Orbital Space Plane was a program to develop a Shuttle replacement, with the goal of entering into service by 2012. The X-37 was a testbed of the technologies needed for the program, to perfect the automated flight and landing systems the OSP needed.
When President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, one of the first things to be axed was the OSP program, including the X-37 test bed. By this point the X-37 had already been validated and was ready for the full flight testing to begin. Many thought this was the end of the X-37. Instead, it was transferred to the Air Force, and became a classified research program.
After years of development, the X-37, now with a new classified mission, was ready for service. On the 22nd of April, 2010, the first orbital launch of the X-37 happened. Housed on top of an Atlas V rocket, the X-37 flew into orbit, where it stayed for over seven months, breaking all records for a winged orbital vehicle’s orbit endurance. It was quickly followed by a second launch, which stayed in orbit for twice as long.
Today, the third launch was successful at 1:03pm EST. The press release by the launch company, United Launch Alliance, came shortly afterwards:
United Launch Alliance Successfully Launches Third X-37B
Orbital Test Vehicle for the Air Force
First Spacecraft to Launch on an Atlas, Return to Earth and Launch Again
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., (Dec. 11, 2012) – A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the third Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-3) for the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (AFRCO) at 1:03 p.m. EST today from Space Launch Complex-41. The OTV, also known as the X-37B, supports space experimentation, risk reduction, and concept of operations development for long duration and reusable space vehicle technologies. The first two OTV missions also were successfully launched by ULA respectively on April 22, 2010 and March 5, 2011.
“The ULA team is proud to have played a critical role in successfully launching these three important Orbital Test Vehicle missions for the Air Force RCO,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Mission Operations. “This is a unique spacecraft since it is the first to launch on an Atlas V, return to Earth landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and then fly again on this mission.”
This launch completes the most aggressive campaign in the history of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program with 10 missions launched during 2012, including eight launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and two from Vandenberg Air Force Station in California.
This mission was launched aboard an Atlas V EELV 501 configuration vehicle, which includes a 5-meter diameter payload fairing. The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR) RL10A-4 engine.
“I sincerely congratulate our OTV customer on today’s successful launch as well as our integrated team of mission partners that successfully accomplished ten critical one-at-a-time launches in 2012,” said Sponnick.
The EELV program was established by the United States Air Force to provide assured access to space for Department of Defense and other government payloads. The commercially developed EELV Program supports the full range of government mission requirements, while delivering on schedule and providing significant cost savings over the heritage launch systems.
ULA’s next launch is the Atlas V TDRS-K mission for NASA scheduled Jan. 29, 2013 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
ULA program management, engineering, test, and mission support functions are headquartered in Denver, Colo. Manufacturing, assembly and integration operations are located at Decatur, Ala., and Harlingen, Texas. Launch operations are located at Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., and Vandenberg AFB, Calif.
For more information on ULA, visit the ULA Web site at www.ulalaunch.com, or call the ULA Launch Hotline at 1-877-ULA-4321 (852-4321). Join the conversation at www.facebook.com/ulalaunch and twitter.com/ulalaunch.
Chris Chavez, (303) 269-5550 (office), (303) 332-6416 (cell), firstname.lastname@example.org
The mission, as with all previous, is classified. The particulars of this launch, however, gives some clues. The time of the launch enables brief moments from which existing orbital telescopes can inspect the vehicle once it reaches orbit. It is widely theorized that the small space plane can operate as a spy vehicle, using its maneuverability to change its orbit in order to keep an eye on the opponents of the United States. This is possible, but the X-37’s size tends to discredit such ideas. Any optics it carries would be far smaller than the optics on even the oldest US made spy satellite, with the resulting quality far inferior. But, it’s maneuverability, and reusability might make up for this.
Alternatively, it could be just as NASA was doing, and it is a test bed for a follow-on program. And in fact, Boeing has detailed out a larger version of the vehicle, which would be of sufficient size to carry the optics required. It also would be large enough to carry a small crew as well, so it is possible that Boeing, along with the USAF, is returning to its roots, as it were, and planning on a single platform which can do both civil, and intelligence operations in much the same way as the Space Shuttle.
The X-37’s story is not yet over, it has only just begun. This third launch now marks the continuation of a program which almost wound up in the garbage bin of history. It makes you wonder what else is in there, which might yet see the light of day.