The X-37B shortly after completing its 1st mission Photo credit: Boeing photo
In 2010, as the Space Shuttle program was winding down, the secretive Other spaceplane was preparing for its first ever test mission. Shortly after it landed, it was launched on its second mission, this one lasting 469 days — more than a year. It returned to Earth a few days ago, to much excitement and speculation as to what exactly it was doing up there. Small enough to fit inside the Shuttle’s cargo bay, the X-37B is an impressive little spaceship.
Being an unmanned craft, it can devote the space which would have been used on bulky life-support equipment to more useful stuff like fuel, giving it the ability to switch from orbit to orbit rapidly and stealthily. Of course, “stealth” is a relative term as it never seems to take amateur satellite spotters more than a few days to find it and calculate its new orbit, but it’s good enough to be able to launch, deliver a spy satellite, possibly visit an enemy satellite, and return to Earth without revealing its mission.
Why so secretive? Because X-37B does not belong to NASA, but to the US Air Force. And that’s the fascinating thing to me: When we hear the words “Space Program”, we immediately think NASA (and then, after a moment’s thought, ESA, Rokosmos, and the rest). But the USA has at least three different space programs — NASA, the Air Force (with X-37B) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) which runs all the spy satellites. And of the three, big old NASA which gave us the Hubble Space Telescope, Astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and even put human beings on the Moon, is the smallest and most poorly funded. And while it’s probably only natural that the agencies concerned with national defense should be considered so much more important than a mere research body, it’s still a little sad. Preach on about Science being the way forward, at the end of the day it’s governments and their militaries that run the world.