Wednesday, April 21, 2010

X-37B Test Flight Scheduled For Tomorrow: Robots, Spaceships, and Feeling Safe


Update (December 4, 2010)
"Experimental X-37B Robot Space Plane to Launch Thursday "
Space.com (April 20, 2010)

"The United States Air Force plans to launch its first robotic X-37B space plane Thursday on a mission that is a forerunner of things to come. A second mini-space plane is already under contract and is projected to be launched next year.

"New details regarding the mini-space plane and its upcoming Thursday liftoff atop an Atlas 5 booster were discussed today during a U.S. Air Force-held media press briefing.

"The X-37B vehicle's history stretches back to the late 90s, with NASA kick-starting the project. It was later picked up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and ultimately found a home within the Air Force. The project is now under the wing of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. [X-37B spacecraft photos.]..."

Back in the fifties and sixties, quite a few people predicted that we'd have spaceships by the 21st century. What just about everybody missed was how many of those spaceships would be robots. Not piloted by robots, or with robots in the crew: spacecraft that were robots.

The X-37B is more of a reentry vehicle than a spaceship, but I think you get the idea.

The Space.com article does a pretty good job of summarizing what the XB-37B project is, and how it got to being ready for a test flight.

It's a test vehicle for a larger space plane: one that could carry people. But the XB-37B is also designed to get a little work done while developers learn what works- and what doesn't.

"...The small X-37B spacecraft resembles a miniature space shuttle and is equipped with its own payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed – ample space to hold a couple of small satellites that are a few hundred kilograms each, [U.S. Air Force Deputy Under Secretary for Space Programs Gary] Payton noted.

"According to released specifications, the X-37B space plane weighs about 11,000 pounds and is just over 29 feet in length. It stands slightly more than 9 1/2 feet in height and has a wingspan just over 14 feet across.

"The initial X-37B flight is designed to loiter in space up to 270 days. After retracting its solar array and closing payload doors, the space plane would re-enter in automated mode...."

I don't have the fear that some folks had, of robot vehicles with no human hand at the controls. There are circumstances where I'd feel a lot safer, knowing that my life wasn't in the hands of some dude in the front.

Personal Reminiscence: Which Has a (Very) Little to do With the XB-37B

The automated BART trains made the news while I was living in San Francisco. The BART system pays guys to stand in the control room that's currently at at the 'front' of the train. Mostly, I suspect, to help nervous passengers feel safer.

Anyway, the 'driver' is supposed to let the train know when he's leaving the cab.

This dude noticed some kids playing with the doors of the train. So he left the cab, and the train, walked back and asserted his authority with the kids. (That's one reason for having a human around, BTW: but someone on the platform could have done the job.)

Then the train, not realizing that a token human wasn't in the cab, left the station. With the 'driver' running along the platform, trying to catch up.

No, I do not necessarily feel safer with a human at the controls.

Related posts:More:

2 comments:

Brigid said...

Or not: "Then the train, now realizing"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...

Brigid,

Heh, heh. I actually like it with the typo: "...Then the train, now realizing that a token human wasn't in the cab, left the station...." There's a delightfully sinister tone to that.

Thanks!

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