Secretive X-37B space plane ends 7-month orbit

Resembling a shrunk-down space shuttle, the Air Force's X-37B returns to Earth from its debut test flight, pointing the way toward cheaper, adaptable--and perhaps military--missions.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on the runway.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on the runway, at an unspecified earlier date. Boeing

More specifically, the Air Force's stated purpose for this first flight was to see how the craft's guidance, navigation, and other unmanned systems would handle the orbit and landing. But a statement from the Air Force in April at the time of the launch date hinted at other uses.

"If these technologies on the vehicle prove to be as good as we estimate, it will make our access to space more responsive, perhaps cheaper, and push us in the vector toward being able to react to warfighter needs more quickly," Gary Payton, the Air Force deputy undersecretary for space programs, said in a statement at that time.

The Air Force has kept mum about any potential military uses of the X-37B, along with whatever might have been in the space plane's payload bay during the test flight. Some experts and analysts believe the craft is designed to help push the development of combat and weapons systems, while others say it could serve as an unmanned orbital spy platform.

A second vehicle, dubbed the Orbital Test Vehicle 2, is being readied for launch in the spring.

"This marks a new era in space exploration, and we look forward to the launch of the second vehicle in 2011," Paul Rusnock, Boeing's vice president of experimental systems and program director for the X-37B, said in a statement today. "By combining the best of aircraft and spacecraft into an affordable, responsive unmanned vehicle, Boeing has delivered an unprecedented capability to the RCO [the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office]."

Weighing 11,000 pounds, measuring 29 feet long, and sporting a wingspan of less than 15 feet, the X-37B resembles a smaller version of the space shuttle. That's more than just a coincidence since the craft was originally a NASA project before the Air Force took it over.

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