UPDATE (2011-MARCH-3): The USAF is planning on again launching the X-37B on a classified mission. An unanswered question is whether this is a re-launch of the same X-37B which flew last year, or a 2nd prototype? If it’s the former, that’s significant for turnaround time.
Prologue: This piece was written and submitted for publication on Dec. 6, 2010, and published on Dec. 15th. On that very same day, Orbital Sciences announced that they were submitting an official proposal to NASA to build an orbital space plane to take up to four people into an orbit capable of delivering them to the International Space Station. This article actually scooped the news by over a week. – Mike
To me, it obviously bore a more-than-passing resemblance to two of NASA’s mothballed experimental space planes: the X-33 and the X-34. This tweaked my memory and provoked some comparisons and guesses.
So far, I think I’m the only one who has ever made the connections expressed in that piece.
Now, an update.
On November 16 and 17, NASA surprised observers and the aerospace industry at large by pulling out of ignominious and poorly preserved storage the two X-34 experimental space planes which had been socked away in 2001 for technical and financial reasons.
Two weeks later, on the morning of December 3, 2010, the military’s X-37B robotic space plane, in orbit on a classified mission since April 22, 2010, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on a 15,000 foot runway originally built for the space shuttle.
Coincidence? I think not.
My original speculation was that a successful X-37B mission might lead the way to a scaled up version that could replace the space shuttle sooner, or at least better, than has been anticipated up to this point in time.
My current suspicion?
That by late October or early November, probably much earlier, the Air Force had quietly shared with NASA the technical and structural results of the mission, and it all looked extremely – maybe even surprisingly – good.
Since NASA is currently betwixt missions, manned programs, and even plans for future manned spacecraft, this early technological Christmas present was too good to pass up.
It probably felt a lot like going into your grand dad’s old barn and finding an 80 year old Deusenberg, just needing some mechanical updating.
I wouldn’t be surprised if in the course of the coming year, you hear more about the X-34 (or maybe an X-34B or X-37C?). You may just have to listen carefully.
Michael R. Honig has hosted ThinkWing Radio with Mike Honig on Talk650-AM (Houston), and maintains and updates the web site ThinkWingRadio.com. He is a political activist, writer, and teacher. He has decades of experience in the retail business, the window fashions trade as installer and seller, and in film process control. (Like that’s gonna be useful anymore.) If he hasn’t worked at it, he probably still knows enough to be dangerous. Contact him at ThinkWingRadio@msn.com.