U.S. Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett and Space Force Gen. John W. Raymond cast some light on the previously classified missions of America’s reusable space plane, the X-37B. The two spoke today during a webinar hosted by the Space Foundation. They updated the audience on the progress the U.S. Space Force has made. The two showed a recruiting video about the Space Force, and in it Barrett revealed that one part of the presentation showed the X-37B’s return to Earth. The X-37B is an unmanned space plane boosted into orbit by a rocket and gliding to Earth like the space shuttle. Built by Boeing, the craft has completed five missions with a total of 2,865 days on orbit, Barrett said.
The Air Force’s Rapid Capability Office has combined forces with the Air Force Research Lab, and now with the U.S. Space Force to execute a mission that maximizes the X 37-B’s unique capabilities, she said. “This important mission will host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments,” she added. One of the experiments will test the reaction of “significant materials” to the conditions in space,” Barrett said. A second experiment will study the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds. A third experiment, designed by the Naval Research Laboratory, transforms solar power into radiofrequency microwave energy, then studies transmitting that energy to Earth, Barrett said.
On 17 November 2006, the U.S. Air Force announced that it would develop its own variant from NASA’s X-37A. The Air Force version was designated the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). The OTV program was built on earlier industry and government efforts by DARPA, NASA, and the Air Force under the leadership of the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office in partnership with NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory. Boeing was the prime contractor for the OTV program. The X-37B was designed to remain in orbit for up to 270 days at a time. The OTV program would focus on “risk reduction, experimentation, and operational concept development for reusable space vehicle technologies, in support of long-term developmental space objectives”.
NASA also stated that the program had completed tests to determine whether the X-37B, one-fourth the size of the Space Shuttle, could land on the former Shuttle runways. Most of the activities of the X-37B project are secret. The official U.S. Air Force statement is that the project is “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, uncrewed space test platform for the U.S. Air Force”. The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technology and operating experiments which can be returned to Earth. The Air Force states that this includes testing avionics, flight systems, guidance and navigation, thermal protection, insulation, propulsion, and re-entry systems.