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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 Nyder (754090) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @04:52PM (#42254515) Journal

    Must be over-due for a good conspiracy theory

    It's not a conspiracy till Jesse Ventura investigates it.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_Theory_with_Jesse_Ventura [wikipedia.org]

  • by thebigmacd (545973) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:23PM (#42254765)

    The space shuttle was largely a new craft at every launch too: the fuel tank was new, the engines were rebuilt, tiles were replaced, boosters were remanufactured (and completely new every few flights)

    I think it was the shuttle (might have been the Saturn V) that had around 4000 parts fail every flight.

  • by peragrin (659227) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:24PM (#42254771)

    no the worst features of the shuttle was putting the main engines on the the shuttle instead of on a primary booster like the Buran.

    That created a lot of complicated parts that took way to much time to maintain between launches. All three main engines in each shuttle required a complete disassembly between launches. Not to mention the weight.

    The Buran flew like the x-37 flies now. pushed up by something else and then using thrusters in orbit.
    Indeed the X-37 is being studied by boeing for a 200% scale version for manned version as flying down from orbit is safer than parachute landing.

  • by bobbied (2522392) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:29PM (#42254809)

    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

    The Shuttle was a MANNED vehicle while the USAF's is NOT manned. Having a crew requires significant amount of equipment and weight to provide the minimum of life support (power, air, light, cooling, food, waste processing etc) which is not required by the USAF's unmanned drone. Further, it's been a couple of decades since the shuttle was designed and technology has advanced, getting smaller, lighter, and less power hungry. I am not surprised that an unmanned vehicle is smaller, cheaper, and more mission capable all things being equal. But they are not equal..

    Comparing the current state of the art and complaining that what we fielded 30 years ago was a waste is not valid. Yes, the Shuttle did not meet the cost per launch targets, but I don't think the shuttle program was a total waste of time or money because of that. And the USAF's unnamed drone is 30 years more advanced in technology which was partially developed through what we learned though the shuttle program.

    If anything surprises me is that it took so long for the USAF to figure out they needed a reusable platform of their own, but even that is understandable when you remember they used the shuttle for some classified work when it was available. This is just the natural progression of things.

  • by gadget junkie (618542) <gbponz@libero.it> on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:09PM (#42255609) Journal

    I am curious of what is the point of an unmanned space plane? There's nobody on it, so why make the return trip? The ability to fly down must compromise the design for everything else to some degree.

    It might just be that the RESULTS from the sensors are so far ahead of the curve, that the DoD doesn't want to broadcast them in any shape or form. Or, security of military channel data have been compromised to some degree. Or, just a message to the Chinese, who have tested antisatellite weapons in the past [wikipedia.org], that their "dark period" in that case is not measured in weeks, even if they disrupt communications between the satellites and earth.
    It might be like the B2 Spirit [wikipedia.org]: there might be only 20 of them, but if your bosses control a country spanning 5 time zones and want an early warning system capable of defeating it, start to print money now. Because you do not have enough of it.

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:27PM (#42255735)

    no the worst features of the shuttle was putting the main engines on the the shuttle instead of on a primary booster

    The worst feature of the shuttle was trying to make it carry both people and cargo. That is like trying to make an airplane do the job of both a F-16 and a C-130. It is not going to do either very well. We should have designed a cheap unmanned heavy lift vehicle that was 99% reliable, and a much smaller "space-plane" to carry people that was 99.99% reliable. Instead we built a really expensive manned heavy lift vehicle that was ~98% reliable (135 launches, 2 failures).

  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:43PM (#42255865)

    Comparing the current state of the art and complaining that what we fielded 30 years ago was a waste is not valid.

    Perhaps, but NASA has had major managment issues from the start. Go read Appendix D of the Challenger Disaster report, by one Mr. Feynman, who had to fight tooth and nail to expose the institutional problems that led to the problem. It's since become a case study in how not to manage a project and is required reading in several prominent engineering companies. The design of the shuttle engines, while amazing pieces of technology, were not built according to best practices -- it was literally put together as a whole system and then tested as a completed unit rather than integrating each subsystem after extensive testing and comparison with expected baseline. Debugging the damn thing was exceptionally problematic and to this day it's still not known if all the possible failure modes and bugs have been found and documented. Management showed a long pattern of decreasing safety standards and bypassing procedural safeguards to maintain their image as "cutting edge".

    NASA still suffers from those problems today, and private contractors and now the USAF have proven that the technology is actually not all that sophisticated nor requiring the massive administrative overhead that is so typical of NASA missions and daily operations. They've done it faster, better, and cheaper than NASA did, and their success lies not in copying existing technology, or inventing new technology, but in having good project management skills and not letting committee thinking and politics mangle and derail the whole thing, leading to massive cost overruns.

  • by Alomex (148003) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @09:39PM (#42256589) Homepage

    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.

    The technology for automated landing was there 30 years ago when the shuttle was being built. The astronauts complained and demanded they pilot the craft, so changes were made. If not for those the shuttle would have already been 100% automated landing.

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