In December 2012, the U.S. Air Force launched a miniature space shuttle into orbit. By the end of August, the unmanned space plane had spent 627 days on its classified military mission that seems to have no end.
According to Fox News, the X-37B space shuttle resembles a much smaller version of NASA’s retired space shuttle. It is a mere 29 feet long and a little over 10 feet tall. Its wingspan is 15 feet wide. The old space shuttle could fit two X-37B planes inside it while this mini version’s bay is only the size of a pickup truck bed.
“The Air Force continues to push the envelope of the solar-powered X-37B capabilities,” said Professor Joan Johnson-Freese of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Yahoo News reported that the key to the X-37B’s durability in space is its ability to use solar panels to generate power. The more time it is in orbit, the more time there is for testing.
“While far above the longevity of any other reusable aircraft, it is far below that of most U.S. satellites, which are built to last for years, even decades,” Johnson-Freese said. “That certainly confirms the broad, officially stated goal of the X-37B as a test bed vehicle.”
“While the classified nature of the X-37B has raised some concerns about its intended operational purposes, technically, the program must be commended for doing something new and successfully,” Johnson-Freese said.
General William Shelton, retired Commander of the Air Force Space Command, has remained secretive on the X-37B’s mission.
“I’ll give you my standard line on X-37,” Shelton stated at the National Space Foundation’s 30th Space Symposium held last May. “X-37 is doing great. I can’t tell you what it’s doing, but it’s doing great.”
Fox News reported that Shelton spoke at the Atlantic Council last July on the topic of the United States and its future in space. He said “space forces are foundational to every military operation, from humanitarian to major combat operations. Space has to be there, [satellites must be] continuously deployed in place, providing communications, missile warning, navigation, space surveillance and weather services.”
Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems announced plans to expand its presence in Florida and to consolidate its space plane operations by using NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as a landing site for the space plane. According to Boeing representative, investments will be made to convert the former space shuttle facility to a structure that would allow the U.S. Air Force “to efficiently land, recover, refurbish, and re-launch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.”