Monday, April 5, 2010

X-37B / Orbital Test Vehicle Robot Spaceplane Now an Air Force Project

"Air Force Space Plane to Launch After Long, Twisted Past" (April 3, 2010)

"More than a decade after its conception in the halls of NASA, and having snaked its way through multiple Pentagon bureaucracies, an unmanned military spaceplane is finally on the verge of launching on an unprecendented [!] test flight.

"A stubby-winged spaceship called the Orbital Test Vehicle will fly into orbit on an Atlas 5 rocket, taking a round-trip shakedown voyage for the U.S. Air Force.

" 'What it offers that we have seldom had is the ability to bring back payloads and experiments to examine how well the experiments performed on-orbit,' said Gary Payton, the undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs. 'That's one new thing for us.'

"Payton, a former space shuttle flier and NASA manager, is now the Air Force's top civilian space official.

"Liftoff should occur the evening of April 19 in a launch window opening at 6:49 p.m. EDT and closing at 9:12 p.m. EDT, according to an Air Force spokesperson.

"Several weeks or months later, the spacecraft will drop into the atmosphere and glide to an automated landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. ..."

I wouldn't have used the word "twisted" myself - but then I've spent a noticeable fraction of my life dealing with government bureaucracies for one reason or another. What seems to have happened with the X-37B is that a project that's important - and expensive - has been shifted to agencies that had the budget to handle it.

Briefly, the article says that the Boeing X-37B started with NASA, was handed off to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004 when NASA funding ran out - and then to the Air Force in 2006.

What the article does not say, thankfully, is that the X-37B/Orbital Test Vehicle is a complete waste of time: because it doesn't have any 'practical' applications. Unlike the Shuttle, it apparently won't carry payloads to the ISS or ferry people from place to place.

That's hardly surprising, since it's an experimental vehicle. It's function is to test new technologies - so that they can be used in RSVs (Reusable Launch Vehicles).

I think we'd get the job done by staying out of the way of outfits like Scaled Composites: but I'll concede that the NASA-DARPA-Air Force approach might get a spaceplane rolled out sooner.

And besides, it looks cool.

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