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Space The Military

Air Force Sends Mystery Mini-Shuttle Back To Space 123

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-doing-anything-suspicious-no-sirree dept.
dsinc sends this quote from an AP report about the U.S. Air Force's X-37B spaceplane: "The Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft Tuesday hidden on top of an Atlas V rocket. It's the second flight for this original X-37B spaceplane. It circled the planet for seven months in 2010. A second X-37B spacecraft spent more than a year in orbit. These high-tech mystery machines — 29 feet long — are about one-quarter the size of NASA's old space shuttles and can land automatically on a runway. The two previous touchdowns occurred in Southern California; this one might end on NASA's three-mile-long runway once reserved for the space agency's shuttles. The military isn't saying much, if anything, about this new secret mission. In fact, launch commentary ended 17 minutes into the flight. But one scientific observer, Harvard University's Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speculates the spaceplane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a testbed for future satellites."
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Air Force Sends Mystery Mini-Shuttle Back To Space

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  • by phayes (202222) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:46PM (#42254477) Homepage

    Why not use the word cowering or is that just too transparently anti-military for the axe-grinding author?

  • by mcrbids (148650) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:53PM (#42254531) Journal

    Conspiracy or no, the Air Force did what NASA could not: demonstrate a PRACTICAL, reusable space plane.

    NASA had a "designed by committee" project that threw in everything including redundant kitchen sinks and ended up with a bloated whale of a project that was highly impractical and utterly a failure at what it was intended to do: reduce costs. Instead what we got was something designed by committees of non experts that ended up with something like Homer Simpson's badly designed car [onscreencars.com] that has been an utter failure in the marketplace.

    This is a classic White Elephant [wikipedia.org] development that simultaneously bankrupted NASA while disabling the development of any more feasible technologies. So we're stuck with it while NASA tries to regroup and come up with a strategy that doesn't suck.

    Meanwhile, belief in NASA's proficiency is at an all time low, so even though they are, in fact, doing some really cool stuff, the fact is that the worlds wealthiest nation has one of the world's least useful space programs.

    So the USAF built their own. Is anybody surprised?

  • by X0563511 (793323) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:54PM (#42254545) Homepage Journal

    Actually that sounds like an excellent opportunity to test the sensors. Can they track and get anything back from the asteroid? If you can catch a photo of an asteroid whizzing by, this tells you a lot about your effective capabilities.

    I'm impressed by the automated landing. Granted you don't have to be quite as careful as there are no meatbags inside, but it's still a damn cool feat.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:59PM (#42254579)

    One reuse so far, and it's unmanned. It's a bit much to compare that to what NASA wants, which is a manned craft, that's definitely reusable more times. (The X-37B might be, it's just too early to say. It hasn't even landed after the first reuse yet.)

  • by Hythlodaeus (411441) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:04PM (#42254623)

    X-37 is a NASA design. The Air Force rescued it when NASA couldn't find the money to keep it going.

  • by trb (8509) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:14PM (#42254695)

    These high-tech mystery machines — 29 feet long — are about one-quarter the size of NASA's old space shuttles and can land automatically on a runway.

    The X-37B is not one-quarter the size of the Space Shuttle, it's one-quarter the length of the Space Shuttle. The launch weight of the X-37B is 5.5 tons. The launch weight of the Space Shuttle is 125 tons. This ignorance about the meaning of dimensions reminds me of the Stonehenge scene from Spinal Tap.

  • by LWATCDR (28044) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:32PM (#42254821) Homepage Journal

    Yes but not exactly the way you think it happened. NASA wanted a smaller shuttle to well shuttle astronauts and supplies to a space station. NASA also wanted in improved Saturn V "The uprated F1a was already in testing" as well. Congress said no you can have which ever is cheaper.
    Congress also wanted it to do all the military launches so they had to put big spy sats into polar orbits. Without military support no shuttle. NASA was fighting for their lives at the time.

    We can put a man on the moon but we can not "fill in your social cause or pet project here"!
    Well we can't put men on the moon anymore! Happy now!

  • Good for the USAF (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Animats (122034) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:38PM (#42254863) Homepage

    It's good to see the USAF with some general-purpose space capability. They now have something that can go up to low orbit for a reasonable cost, stay up for a while, and carry a range of payloads. Useful.

  • by tiqui (1024021) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @02:40AM (#42257721)

    The shuttle rode on the side of the stack for a reason - so it could use it's three main engines for the entire climb to orbit. These engines were designed to be the best rocket engines ever developed (which meant they'd be very complex and expensive) and, therefore, to be re-usable. They were on the back of the orbiter not as an error, but precisely because that meant they would come home for re-use instead of being thrown-away on each flight. What you seem to think was a mistake, was in fact a design feature and part of the argument for making the scheme both technically and financially workable. As long as going to space requires throwing away most of the vehicle, it will remain the exclusive domain of governments and rich businesses/businessmen. Nobody but the super rich could afford to fly from NY to LA if the entire airliner was discarded during the flight and the passenger parachuted onto the LA runway in a small escape pod.

    In actual practice, nothing about the shuttle system turned out to be as cheap as initially intended; that rarely happens on the first-generation of any world-leading technology. Had we built a 2nd generation of shuttles they likely would have performed far better with lower turn-around times and costs.

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