Monday, October 20, 2014

Secret Squirrel Spaceplane

“The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!”  ― Larry Niven

Having a background in aerospace engineering, this article is on a topic near and dear to my heart, space science and exploration:

"The U.S. Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane touched back down on Earth after a two-year mission — but conspiracy theorists are still wondering what the craft was doing all that time.

A military spokesman said the “X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 3 (OTV-3)” returned to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, on the heels of a 674-day mission to conduct experiments in orbit, CNN reported. But how exactly it spent those 674 days isn’t really known.

Conspiracy theorists have been trying to figure out for months what the Pentagon has been doing with its “newest and most advance re-entry spacecraft,” CNN reported. One guess: The spacecraft is a space bomber, CNN reported. Other say it’s a spy plane.”

(Rest of the article here.  Air Force link on the spacecraft here

My opinion?  Technically it’s probably meant for BOTH surveillance and orbital/suborbital bombing missions.  Developing a multi-use re-entry vehicle for just one of said missions would be an enormously expensive and wasteful use of any sizeable spacecraft.  But I think what this vehicle is REALLY all about is as a proof-of-concept for various technologies (primarily re-entry thermal protection and automated flight & landing systems) that the Air Force will use to develop something bigger and more versatile.  The X-37B is neat, but given the high cost and limited utility compared to other available options for said activities (like surveillance planes & satellites and bombing missions conducted from aircraft carriers), I think its primary purpose is as an intermediate step to a larger multi-use orbital vehicle with the ability to fly manned and unmanned missions as well as to dock with the ISS and other spacecraft.  In fact, the link to the Air Force description page says straight out this the purpose is to test and prove various systems and technologies.  And in the space biz, to pursue something as ambitious as a full-size multi-use space plane, you have to have a reasonably mature Technology Readiness Level (TRL) for the various components involved as well as system as a whole.  Given the government's extensive track record in gratuitously lying and deceiving the public (especially since Baby Bush's tenure) I'm naturally suspicious of just about any information that comes from the government.  But in this case the official explanation makes sense.  If they're not totally brain-dead they would have had it performing surveillance in addition to whatever microgravity experiments they were doing in there for the past two years in orbit, but I'm pretty certain anything other than proving the concept and various systems are purely secondary goals.

Seeing these kinds of things gives me a little bit of optimism for the future of space flight.  It’s almost enough to make me willing to work another DoD contracting job.  Almost…. but not quite.  In my limited experience the military as a whole is somewhat less dysfunctional than the majority of other government organizations, but that’s kind of like being top of the class in summer school.

Regardless, even excessively bureaucratic and corrupt institutions can create something of value on occasion.  One can only hope this space plane and the one that will likely follow will prove to be one of those rare exceptions and the technologies filter down to the civilian sector.

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