USAF's Little X-37B Space Shuttle: More Military Than NASA's


The fuss about NASA's future and the end of the Space Shuttle overshadowed one fact: NASA's not the biggest space agency in the U.S. The military is test-launching its own tiny space plane today, in fact, and it's damn creepy.

The vehicle in question is the X-37B. The "X" gives away its experimental status, the "B" is a reference to the fact the original X-37 was a Boeing/NASA technology testbed that actually underwent basic automatic in-atmosphere unpowered flight testing with the help of Scaled Composite's famous White Knight aircraft (part of the X-prize-winning SpaceShipOne program.) But other than that we know precious little about what the X-37B will be doing while its up there in space, apart from what we can glean from the project's history.

shuttleThe X-37B is due to be the military's first spaceplane, as foretold in all those glorious black-and-white illustrations in science mags from the 1950s, although no steely-eyed missile men will be aboard, as it's unmanned. Today's scheduled launch, atop a big Delta V rocket, is actually coming at the behest of the USAF, and various government agencies including DARPA. It's designated an "orbital test vehicle" so this is actually much more elaborate than a simple pop-gun trip into space and back on a ballistic trajectory. The little shuttle-esque craft will instead go into low earth orbit, stay there for over 270 days (nine months) and then automatically re-enter, manage its atmospheric deceleration by itself, and bring itself into a safe landing. While up there in the darkness and vacuum it'll busy itself doing "various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components, and associated technology to be transported into space and back" according to the USAF.

Does that sound eerie to you? If not, then it should. Some are seeing this launch as one of the first attempts to properly weaponize space vehicles. And the little 27-foot long space plane is ideal for all sorts of mischievousness: Just ponder what sort of payload could be neatly stored inside, shot into orbit, and then commanded to enter the atmosphere at 25 times the speed of sound before effecting a "landing" somewhere on Earth. It may also serve as a powerful orbital delivery system for satellites (of the spying kind) and may even be able to recover small orbiting objects before bringing them back to the ground safely.

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  • Christopher Eller

    Satellites may be secondary, what with "low earth orbit", and the flexibility to rapidly drop out of the atmosphere where ever needed, seems like this is the next level in UAVs Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. This can really give the US military the ability to deliver a response attack, offensive attack, and deliver low orbit, battlefield level observation and control platforms, as well as new, never before seen (or publically conceived of) weapons systems. Attack scenarios seem obvious; look at the mass, naval based missile launches the US has done (see Iraq). Look at all of the UAV attack uses. This advanced UAV threat possibility gives the US deterrence power. Of course payloads will have to be fought over, as one of these can sit up there for nine or so months, they'll fight over what will be floating around waiting to be used--and putting more in orbit.
    But perhaps the best use will be for situation or battlefield observation systems. Satellites are good, but they already have preplanned flight paths and missions, so can be difficult for small mission use. Observation aircraft take time to get in place and they're vulnerable to advanced states military systems. One of these space planes can sit up there with weapons and rapidly delivered combat observation systems for ready use. But in the end, we're creating the "rise of the machines". We used to argue if life imitates art or vice-versa. Now it seems art may be imitating future life.