To X-37B Or Not To X-37B? That Is The Question.

Posted by Michael R. Honig

Changes are coming rapidly to NASA, and the future of the United States' dedication and capability to mount manned space missions are increasingly in question.

In “Stargate: SG-1”, the world was still struggling to build and expand space programs to low Earth orbit, while the U.S. (still using NASA as a cover story) was secretly exploring our galaxy, and some others, using the alien-built Stargate system.

Today, is NASA cancelling the shuttle while a smaller shuttle-derived vehicle is being more-or-less secretly developed and tested for flight by the United States Air Force? And is it possible that this vehicle is not just a research version of a future Air Force space craft, but is actually a synergistic spin-off of the current shuttle design, using both older iterations that had more economical promise, but with more, newer, better and more advanced technology thrown into the program?

Such is the twisted tale of the X-37B.

The ‘Holy Grails’ of space flight are reusable and so-called “Single Stage To Orbit” (SSTO) spacecraft, and NASA has been investigating possible technologies toward those ends for decades.

First, some background. I love background!

The shuttle and the X-37B are both based on a design called a “lifting body”. The crash-landing of an actual Northrup-built experimental lifting body opened each episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man”. The real test pilot survived without becoming bionic.

Shuttle-derived launch vehicles have been examined exhaustively since at least 1985. The incentive was maximizing the value of investments already made in shuttle technology, but nothing concrete appeared to come from these efforts.

 In 1996, NASA put out a call for proposals to build a Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). The goal was reducing launch costs to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) from about $10,000 per pound to just $1,000 per pound. The results were the X-33 and X-34 programs, among others. These were considered “technology test bed” programs.

The Lockheed Martin X-33 Venture Star program ran from 1996 to 2001, but never flew. In design, it was essentially a “lifting body” with winglets. NASA concluded that aerospace technologies had not progressed far enough to make the project feasible, and cancelled it. You can obtain some more information on the X-33 here, and see an animation of it here.

NASA also signed a contract in 1996 with Orbital Sciences Corp to develop a research craft designated X-34. That project was killed in 2001 due to cost overruns and budget concerns.

Then, in August of 1998, NASA put out a call for proposals for a new program called “Future-X. These proposals were intended to go beyond the X-33 and X-34, while also building on the lessons learned from them. The objective was to demonstrate even more advanced technologies.

The U.S Air Force has dabbled in manned spacecraft with war-making capabilities since at least the late 1950s, probably starting with Dyna-Soar.

To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, they’re still at it. Of course, they deny that they’re still at it.

In December of 1998, there was this quote from a NASA press release:

"NASA has worked closely with the U.S. Air Force in seeking high-payoff technologies that maximize U.S. opportunities to reduce the cost of space transportation."

Here is where the plot appears to thicken. From a July 1999 press release, there’s this:

NASA and The Boeing Co. have entered into a $173 million cooperative agreement to develop a new experimental space plane called the X-37… "Potential new commercial and military reusable space vehicle market applications for these technologies range from on-orbit satellite repair to a next-generation of totally reusable launch vehicles," said Ron Prosser, vice president of Advanced Space and Communications for Boeing Phantom Works in Seal Beach, Ca.

 

The government-industry team will share the cost of the program roughly 50-50. The Air Force is committing $16 million to demonstrate technologies needed to improve future military spacecraft.

Now, here’s the key bit:

The X-37 was transferred from NASA to the  Defense Advanced  Research Projects Agency on September 13, 2004.[1] The   program has become a classified project, though it is not known whether DARPA will  maintain this status for the project. NASA's spaceflight program may be centered around the Crew Exploration Vehicle, while DARPA will promote the X-37 as part of the independent space policy which the Department of Defense has pursued since the Challenger disaster

As you can see in the ‘teaser’ picture at the top of this story and in this video and Air Force ‘brochure’, the family resemblance borne by the X-37B to its predecessors is obvious.

Here’s where we get into my own sheer speculation.

When President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, advocates of manned space missions (including yours truly) were outraged, and serious concern for the future of U.S. manned access to orbit and beyond was extensive and vocal.

 But now, the progress that the USAF has made on X-37B is one of those things that make you go, “Hmmmmm…”

 You know how people often say, “… but you don’t know what things the president knows that we don’t…” Well, the X-37B may be one of those things. And the current state of X-37B technology may be why Obama doesn’t appear extremely concerned about 5 or more years without a U.S-owned manned space capability. And it may be why he was willing to cancel Constellation and the Orion spacecraft.

Orion may be redundant to a nearly operational version of the X-37B! A craft that perhaps is able to come on-stream more quickly than is now being discussed publicly.

What if the X-37B – which is already pretty far along in development, apparently – could be easily upsized and man-rated? What if the upsized version had the potential to install a manned module that can carry people to and from LEO, to destinations like the ISS? The term “manned spacecraft” doesn’t have to mean ‘man-piloted’, after all. What if the plans and major components of an upsized version of X-37B had already been assembled, and final design, construction and assembly wouldn’t take more than a year or three?

This could get interesting…