358. X-37b

This picks up where 343. Black Shuttles leaves off.

The Air Force has wanted space for a long time, since it’s beginning actually. NASA took its MISS program and turned it into Mercury. The Air Force wanted the Dyna-soar, but Gemini beat them out in a fight for appropriations. The Air Force coopted Gemini for a manned reconnaissance station, but unmanned satellites did the job sooner and cheaper. There were rumors that Skylab was largely an Air Force observation post disguised as a science station. Possibly true, but it seems doubtful. Finally they got the Space Shuttle, at least part time, but civilian cautions after the Challenger disaster threw off the Air Force schedule and they fell back on their own resources.

Luke Skywalker got to fly a spaceplane and blow up the Deathstar. The Air Force never did. Okay, maybe the Aurora will change that, if it exists.

(What the heck is Aurora? It is either a follow on to the SR-71 or a myth. Conspiracy theorists believe in it, and the rest of us aviation and space crazies want to. I’ll do a post on it some day.)

What the Air Force ended up with was a highly capable unmanned vehicle called the X-37b. So far it has only flown four missions, but they are all long duration. The latest ended early this month, May 7th, when the craft landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a mission of 718 days.

What can I tell you about the mission? That is a lot like the Aurora. Except for the fact that X-37b does exist, and the Aurora may not (probably doesn’t) exist, everything else is classified.

I gave you a link in Black Shuttles for more information, and warned you that it would be frustrating because of the secrecy involved. I have no such link for X-37b. Google it and chase down the conspiracy sites if you want entertainment. If you want facts, join DARPA. Then maybe you can find out which building houses the facts, but they still won’t tell you about them.

I can tell you a bit about the craft itself. It looks like a miniature space shuttle, about 29 feet long, about 10 feet tall, with a 15 foot wingspan. It is launched inside a streamlined shroud on top of an Atlas 5 missile. It has a payload bay about equivalent to a medium pickup bed.

The program started in 1999 and is closely linked to the X-40, which ultimately became a drop-model test bed for data needed to build the X-37b. NASA transferred the project to the military in 2004 and it disappeared into the black world.

X-37b is a scaled up version of the X-40, so early versions had to undergo additional drop tests, this time using a Scaled Composites White Knight (mother ship for the SpaceShipOne program).

To date, there have been four missions, all launched from Cape Canaveral. The first three landed at Vandenberg. The fourth mission landed on the old Space Shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center.

The future of manned space fighters does not look promising. Most of the new X craft (X-40 through X-57, so far) are unpiloted, but that is simply a cost issue. However, the X-45/46 and X-47 are pilot programs (yes, pun intended) for unpiloted operational fighter jets.

Would-be Luke Skywalkers need not apply. Sorry.

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