The US Airforce launched the secretive X-37B spaceplane late yesterday on its first full test mission. Although details of the mission are classified, the launch was made public and could be viewed via live webstream. Originally commissioned by NASA as a rescue craft for the International Space Station (ISS), the project was later abandoned and taken over by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the speculative research (read: Mad Scientist) department of the US military. DARPA’s earlier projects include gigantic airborne lasers to shoot down ICBM’s, robotic mules to carry a soldiers load, and the Internet.
At 9 meters long and 4.5 meters wide, the X-37B was originally intended to fit inside the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay. The vehicle was built at Boeing Phantom Works, based on an orbital and re-entry demonstrator design initially developed by NASA, then handed over to the Pentagon.
Although the US Airforce issues regular statements about how useful X-37B will be as a space research vehicle, we can’t forget that it is a military project. It’s long range (missions can last up to nine months) and ability to fly long distances through the atmosphere make it capable of launching, operating and landing without being detected by ground-based observers.
The sad part of this is that X-37B remains a military project, and NASA’s current shortages won’t be resolved by this project.