The secretive X-37B spaceplane recently completed it’s first ever test mission, landing succesfully at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It had been in space for just over seven months, confounding amateur satellite spotters with it’s ability to frequently move to completely different orbits.
There has been a great deal of speculation as to the purpose of the X-37B. Like the space shuttle, it was originally a military project designed for maneuvaribility in space and the atmosphere, so that foreign powers could never guess its mission from its trajectory.
Part of the space shuttle’s original design specifications made it possible to launch, deliver a spy satellite (or perform some other secret mission), change direction and land again without ever passing through an area where it could be detected by foreign radar. This particular feature has never been used, however, as it would be an extraordinary waste of fuel for a peaceful scientific mission.
X-37B seems to be a revival of the original idea though, and the fact that the project is now run by the US Airforce along with the capabilities demonstrated in this test flight show that the designers have achieved their goal. With this vehicle, the US now has the ability to move anywhere in near earth orbit undetected (mostly – the aforementioned amateur satellite watchers have proven astonishingly good at tracking the tiny craft as it snuck around between its various orbits!).
Although X-37B shared a lot of design requirements with the space shuttle, there are some important differences. First, it is a robotic spacecraft, operated remotely by ground-based pilots. This first mission was completely unmanned. Secondly, it is very small – it can fit inside the cargo area of the space shuttle!
While I am philosophically opposed to the militarization of space, I have to admit that this is pretty cool technology. And we should always remember that historically, some of our most useful technology was born in military laboratories. Radar, GPS, modern prosthetic limbs, digital cameras, even the Internet, were all born in military research laboratories. Put this next to the growing field of commercial space travel and I can’t help but feel that the space age is finally starting – for real this time.