With the cancellation of the U.S.’s Space Shuttle program, NASA has had to resort to sending astronauts and supplies into space about Russian Soyuz rockets. What most do not know is that the U.S. Air Force is currently testing another reusable rocket design, codenamed the X-37B.
The project began in 1998 as the X-40, or the X-40A Space Maneuver Vehicle. It was designed by Boeing Phantom Works as a NASA project in order to test the aerodynamics of its design. During its first successful test in 1998 the X-40 was dropped from a Black Hawk helicopter, after which a few more tests were carried out until the entire project was transferred to the Department of Defense and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004 at which point the X-40 became the X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle.
The X-37B is a very small craft compared to its precursor the Space Shuttle, being only 29 ft. long, 9.5 ft. tall and 15 ft. wide. In order to take off, the X-37B is carried into space aboard an Atlas V rocket built by the United Launch Alliance, and lands like an airplane. However, like the Space Shuttle the X-37B features a cargo bay which is 7 ft. long and 4 ft. wide, although exactly what kind of cargo the X-37B will carry is extremely classified.
It is this secrecy surrounding the project that has both caused it to go relatively unnoticed by many and yet draw the attention of those in the field. The goals of the X-37 program are clear, as the Air Force has stated that the two main objectives of the program are to develop a reusable vehicle for the future of American space exploration, and to carry out experiments that can be conducted in space and then analyzed on Earth. Aside from that, the nature of the cargo or experiments have not been elaborated on.
To date, the X-37B has been launched into space four times using two different vehicles. The first mission was called OTV-1 (USA-212), the second mission was called OTV-2 (USA-226), and OTV-3 (USA-240.) The same spacecraft was utilized for both OTV-1 and OTV-3, while the fourth mission, OTV-4 was launched on May 20th, 2015 and was expected to last for 200 days. However, as of now OTV-4 was still ongoing.
All of the missions are renowned for the long time spent in orbit, as OTV-1 lasted 225 days, OTV-2 lasted 469 days, and OTV-3 lasted 675 days. This again reiterates the strange nature of the X-37B, since the craft is intended to be reusable and carry cargo into space and yet they are acting more like satellites, which makes some question the feasibility of the project.
Only three versions of the X-37 have been developed thus far. The X-37A was the original NASA design that was used for gliding and atmospheric tests. The second, the X-37B, was designed for the U.S. Air Force and is that only version that has actually gone into space. The third, the X-37C, is expected to be up to 180% the size of the X-37B and capable of carrying up to six astronauts. These astronauts would be carried inside a pressurized compartment located in the cargo bay.
The secrecy of the cargo and the nature of the X-37 program has led many to theorize that the X-37B is actually the testbed for a space-based weapons program, such as a “Rods from God” (a kinetic energy weapon) or an anti-satellite weapon. This would make sense given the project being operated by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office instead of NASA and the long, secretive missions in space, but at the same time the X-37B’s design doesn’t lend itself well to combat. For example, the craft itself is not stealthy by any means, which prevents it from sneaking up on targets while being very easy for hostiles to track. The way it reenters and lands also leaves it very vulnerable to attack.
Regardless of what its full purpose is, the X-37B is clearly not going away any time soon and will most likely be used for more than testing. The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida has a facility that had previously been used to maintain space shuttles called Orbital Processing Facility, or OPF-1. The OPF-1 facility is now being converted by Boeing Defense, Space and Security into a facility that can “land, recover, refurbish and relaunch” a fleet of X-37B’s for the Air Force.
It seems that only time will tell what the full scope of the X-37B’s mission is, and whether or not the X-37B itself is the first step in the militarization of space or merely a prototype for other weapons that are still secret.