The United States Air Force antics never fail to grab media attention, and none more so than the latest reports of top secret spacecraft headed into Earth orbit.
The US Air Force (USAF) X-37B space shuttle that concluded a top secret mission in June this year may have its base operations consolidated to the state of Florida, as stated in a splurge of recent media reports.
The unmanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which in March 2011 left the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and landed 15 months later at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, may see its third flight confined to Florida’s Space Coast. According to Florida Today, the mysterious mini-shuttle, which is also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, could mark a return to NASA’s Shuttle Landing Facility. (1)
Major Tracy Bunko, a spokesperson for the US Air Force told Florida Today that the service is:
“Looking at space shuttle infrastructure for possible cost-saving measures, including the potential for consolidating landing, refurbishment and launch operations at Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.” (1)
The USAF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle
The impending US Air Force mission has been delayed, as it was believed to be blasting off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on October 25, 2012. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced that lift off is instead scheduled for November 13, 2012. (2)
The mysterious X-37B space plane was built by Boeing Company, which is at the heart of modern aviation and space travel. Resonant of a smaller version of NASA’s now retired space shuttles, the X-37B is just 29 feet in length and 15 feet wide, has two angled tail fins and two delta shaped wings and is designed to be “launched like a satellite and land like an aeroplane”.
The solar-powered spacecraft is, according to the U.S. Air Force an “affordable, reusable space vehicle.” (3)
As addition to its strange physical appearance, the USAF space shuttle missions have been shrouded in mystery. The X-37B went into orbit for the second time on March 5, 2011, and spent a total of 469 days in extended Earth orbit, performing its top secret mission for the Air Force.
The Secret Missions of the X-37B
Its first mission was launched in April 2010, when it flew in space for a total of 225 days. Apart from launch dates and flight durations, and the fact that the flights both ended with “ground breaking autonomous atmospheric re-entries at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California”, little has been disclosed about its missions, which are considered classified.
Even the landing date of the spacecraft’s mission this summer was kept vague. This secrecy surrounding the USAF space shuttle’s missions have led to speculation that the X-37B has been involved in the testing of new technologies or in intelligence gathering operations.
The USAF is also elusive regarding the reusable spacecraft’s operation details surrounding its latest mission, which is classified as top secret.
However, Air Force officials have said that the X-37B is being used to test advanced control systems, guidance and navigation, as well as lightweight electromechanical flight systems, state-of-the-art thermal protection systems and high temperature structures and seals. (1)
In 2010, President Obama came under criticism by local residents of Florida as well as former astronauts when he decided to end NASA’s moon program, a move that many felt harmed the Space Coast economy and put the U.S. behind China and Russia in terms of space travel.
The Sunny State Gets a New Lease on Space
The relocation of the space plane to a place where space travel is deeply ingrained into the community – with even the telephone dialing code of the area being 321 – is likely going to be an economic benefit the Sunny State, which is still shaky after the retirement of the U.S. shuttle fleet in 2011.
As Andy Gravina, who is employed as a server administrator at the Kennedy Space Center, told the CS Monitor:
“Spaceflight is a major part of what keeps this area alive.” (4)
While official figures of how many jobs the consolidation of X-37B operations would bring to the Space Coast have not yet been released, it is believed that the move would generate hundreds of contractor and civil service jobs and help to, as Florida Today put it, “Fuel a next-generation economic engine on Florida’s Space Coast.” (1)
Any Air Force or NASA mission that is cloaked in secrecy always manages to arouse media and public interest. However, the fact that the USAF space shuttle is being consolidated to Florida’s Space Coast and will create jobs is naturally encouraging to local residents who, for decades, have gotten used to hearing the growl of rocket engines and the feeling of the earth tremble beneath their feet.