Thursday, April 22, 2010

Air Force X-37B Spacecraft to Launch Tonight

Air Force's Mystery X-37B Robot Spaceship to Launch Today
The United States Air Force's novel robotic X-37B space plane is tucked inside the bulbous nose cone of an unmanned rocket and poised for an evening blastoff from Florida tonight on a mission shrouded in secrecy.

The spacecraft, called the Orbital Test Vehicle, is poised to launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket from a seaside pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Liftoff is slated for sometime during a nine-minute window that opens at 7:52 p.m. EDT.


"On this flight the main thing we want to emphasize is the vehicle itself, not really, what's going on in the on-orbit phase because the vehicle itself is the piece of news here," Payton said.

Secrets of the X-37B

The on-orbit tests, Payton said, are classified
like many Air Force projects in space to protect the nature of the X-37B's "actual experimental payloads."

But the X-37B is designed to stay in space on missions that last up to 270 days long.

For this first test flight, the Air Force wants to see if the X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, can actually launch into space, open its payload bay and deploy a set of solar panels to keep it powered for months at a time. This demonstration flight is also aimed at testing the X-37B spacecraft's ability to fly itself back to Earth and land on a runway at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The key question for the Air Force: How expensive and how much work will it be to turn the X-37B spaceship around for a second flight? If the answer is "too long and too much" it may affect when the X-37B and its sister ship -- a second Orbital Test Vehicle already contracted by the Air Force -- fly again, if ever.

"If that's the case, it makes this vehicle much less attractive to the future," Payton said.

Currently, the Air Force envisions launching the second X-37B, presumably the Orbital Test Vehicle 2, sometime in 2011. [...]

If these tests work out, could this "mini" shuttle eventually be a less-powerful replacement for our current space shuttle fleet, which will be retired soon?
Unlikely, because of it's size. And it won't ready anytime soon. It could lay the groundwork for developing a new kind of space shuttle for people, but that would be a long way off. That's unfortunate, because if Obama succeeds in canceling NASA's Constellation program, we will be facing an unknown period of time with America having no viable manned spacecraft. We will have to depend on the Russians for transport, indefinitely.

And this spacecraft really is small. Look at the human figure in this diagram. Look at the size comparison with the Space Shuttle:

The X-37B is meant to be a small, reusable "robot" ship. It's not clear if it could even be adapted to transport any amount of people. I think it's only meant for cargo missions, satellite retrieval, and for experimenting with technologies for reusable spacecraft.

IMO, we need to keep the Constellation program and it's Orion Spacecraft in production and on-track. It could be ready in three years, and it can hold up to 6 astronauts. It will be cheaper than our shuttle fleet to build and maintain, release us from relying on the Russians, and keep lots of American jobs. Jobs that actually produce something.

Click here for lots more photos and diagrams of the X-37B spacecraft.

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