Don't Look Up: The Secret Space Plane Is Flying Again

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United States Air Force

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base in October 2007

There's something sinister-looking about an airplane with no windows. If a Predator drone starts buzzing your neighborhood, you can be pretty sure it's not there to make friends. The same is true of a windowless space plane. The shuttle may be a flawed machine, but it's also an oddly friendly one — stub-winged and chubby, with little windows in the front that just beg for the smiling face of a pilot.

Not so the shuttle's new little brother, the 29-ft.-long (8.8 m), 15-ft.-high (4.5 m) Air Force space plane that launched in early March on what's billed as a seven-month mission, having completed an earlier nine-month flight in December. Unmanned and automated, the orbital test vehicle is named — with the marketing zing the military is famous for — the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), and is just a quarter of the size of the shuttle. A pip-squeak ship like that ought to seem entirely harmless. But there's that opaque name and, yes, that windowless face, and the fact that the Air Force will say precisely nothing about what its job is. Even the place the OTV was built — the Boeing Phantom Works — has the scent of skulduggery about it.

So what exactly is the OTV and why in the world are we spending money — presumably a lot — on it? This much we do know: the program that birthed the vehicle was begun about a decade ago, principally under NASA's authority, in an effort to design a vehicle to follow the space shuttle, which even then was on a glide path to retirement. In 2004, the George W. Bush Administration shook things up entirely, committing NASA to get out of low earth orbit and return astronauts to the moon. A shuttle is no good for a job like that, so the agency turned instead to designing a traditional, expendable booster, a wingless capsule and a lunar lander — all in the mold of the old Apollo days. So scrap the minishuttle program, right? Wrong.

"There's been an awful lot of money spent on this," says space analyst John Pike of the think tank and online forum "The aerospace industry can't get up and walk across the room for less than $100 million per year. So the program directors had to find themselves a new sponsor."

That sponsor was the Air Force, which loves stuff with wings and can always find a use for a machine that looks like an airplane, even if it travels in space. And in fairness, the OTV deserves the military's interest, since it blends atmospheric and above-the-atmosphere flight so well — in some ways better than the shuttle.

The ship's comparatively small size means it can fit comfortably in the upper-stage shroud of an Atlas V booster. This makes launches much cheaper, not to mention much safer. It was never a good idea to build a manned spacecraft that put the astronauts directly next to the fuel tanks and engines; that was the nasty arrangement that doomed the Challenger crew, as heat and flame from one of the solid boosters leaked through a broken seal and ignited the fuel tank. Better to put the people on top of the stack so they can blast up and away from an exploding booster should a problem occur. (The military's decision to make the OTV crewless — at least for now — makes this advantage moot, of course.)

The payload bay of the OTV is much smaller than that of the shuttle — about the size of a pickup truck's flatbed as opposed to the shuttle's school-bus-size capacity. That limits the cargo it can haul, but the days of using a manned ship to carry large satellites like the Hubble or interplanetary probes into space are over; expendables, again, are cheaper. And with the space station built, there's no need to haul up oversized modules and other components.

With the Air Force not talking about what a nimble ship like this with nothing to build and little to carry would do, imaginations have run wild on the blogosphere. The OTV will be used to carry explosives that could blow up satellites or be dropped on targets below! It's designed to kidnap other countries' satellites in its cargo bay! (See, for example, James Bond's You Only Live Twice, circa 1967.) It will carry space commandos! (See some movie Nicholas Cage will almost certainly make one day.)

The satellite-destruction scenario is not entirely crazy, since the U.S., China and Russia have all designed such systems, positioned either on the ground or in space. In 2007, China blew up one of its own satellites with a ground-based launcher — a weapons demonstration thinly disguised as an effort to get rid of an obsolete piece of orbiting hardware. In 2008, the U.S. followed with a similar bit of cosmic sword rattling.

A likelier use for the OTV would be as a surveillance craft. The U.S. already has plenty of spy satellites, but with China's celestial skeet shooting fresh in the Pentagon's mind, there's a virtue to a winged craft that could do something no ordinary satellite can.

"A ship with wings can bounce off the atmosphere and easily change its orbit," says Pike. "It could fly over China once and then the next time it comes by it could be in a completely different spot. That would make it harder to shoot down."

Of course, it's also possible that the OTV indeed has no use at all. Expensive government projects have a tendency to build a constituency and momentum of their own. Consider how hard it was for the White House, along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen to kill an appropriation for an F-35 fighter jet engine that the military didn't want and that was set to cost taxpayers $3 billion over the next few years. That the engine's factory was in a district near that of House Speaker John Boehner was surely part of the reason for the resistance. The other part is the simple Newtonian truth that programs in motion tend to remain in motion unless acted on — hard — by an outside force.

"When we ask what secret mission [the OTV] is performing, that may assume greater rationality than it deserves," says Pike. "It may just be that this program got up a head of steam and was too big to fail."

If so, it's likely to grow bigger still. Get ready for more flights by the mysterious space plane, but don't expect the Air Force folks to tell you where it's going. It's possible that even they don't know.