So the X-37B – the U.S. Air Force’s amazing space plane – has once again come back to Earth.
And as usual, the Boeing-built unit set a record for orbital longevity by a launch-and-land craft by being aloft for an incredible 780 days before it touched down at 3:51 a.m. last Sunday at NASA’s Shuttle Launch Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
As I’ve said before, you may not have heard much (if anything) about the X-37B, because our mainstream media “news” sources don’t do much to publicize its existence. But the X-37B is an unmanned space plane that’s about a quarter of the size of NASA’s retired manned space shuttles.
The Air Force has two X-37Bs, each measuring about 29 feet long and 15 feet wide and having a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed.
To review, the X-37B project began with NASA in 1999, and was transferred to the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004. Also known as Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the first X-37B made its maiden test flight in April 2006 at California’s Edwards Air Force Base. Its first orbital mission – OTV-1 – began in April 2010, after it was launched via an Atlas V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center.
After staying aloft for 226 days, it touched down at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Santa Barbara, Calif.
The next time an X-37B went up, it stayed up for 469 days before landing in June of 2012 (a record at the time). The X-37B’s third mission (OTV-3) lasted 675 days, ending in October 2014, and its fourth (OTV-4) went on for a whopping 718 days, concluding in May 2017.
The recently concluded OTV-5 mission began September 2017, when the spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
While we know the Air Force has a pair of robotic shuttle-like craft that can circle Earth for unprecedented lengths of time, don’t bother asking what they do, because while the Air Force willingly brags about the technological achievement aspect of its cosmic mini-van, no details are ever shared about the goals or results of X-37B missions.
Obviously, that leaves the door wide open for speculation – some of which is, of course, a bit far-fetched (although not necessarily out of the realm of possibility).
Is the X-37B some sort of space bomber, capable of pinpointing and nailing targets from miles above Earth?
Is it or absorbing data from other countries’ satellites, or playing galactic bumper cars with them? Is it peering deep into jungles, deserts and mountain ranges with high-powered infrared cameras?
Is it spying on some sort of “enemy” outposts and installations, and perhaps looking through the windows of their commanding officers’ offices to see what classified paperwork they left sitting in plain sight?
While there’s no proof of what exactly the X-37B has been doing during its five clandestine missions, it does it in a hurry, because like other machines that travel in a vacuum without the burden of friction, it moves at about 17,000 miles per hour. And since the Air Force won’t say, who knows how long the remarkable contraption could keep zipping around Earth or whether it can “park” next to other spacecraft in order to learn from them (or mess with them)?
Certainly intriguing stuff, and I wish I could know more about it.
Anyway, I guess Air Force brass consider us regular folk are on a need-to-know basis with regard to details of what their high-tech space toy does, and they’ve apparently determined we don’t need to know. But I think we can safely assume the X-37B isn’t setting the stage for a big new Disney attraction called “Spaced Out,” or carrying out experiments for Bill Nye the Science Guy to determine what happens when hamsters or crayfish are subjected to a weightless environment for an extended period.
No, its orbital marathons are likely some form of “national security” measures about which the average Joe doesn’t need to know.
Whether right or wrong, the way the Air Force treats its mysterious X-37B reminds me of Tommy Lee Jones’ character Agent Kay in “Men in Black” saying, “move along folks, nothing to see here” (or however it went), when we know darn well there is.
And consider this: We know the Air Force has the X-37B, but we don’t know what it does. I’m going to say it’s likely the Air Force also has equipment we don’t know about doing even wilder things we we’re not told about.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.