After a delay of almost two months caused by a technical glitch, the Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane blasted off again from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its secret, undisclosed mission.
The launch is the third mission in three years launched by Boeing’s now-shuttered Building 31 in Huntington Beach, California, and is scheduled to spend 693 days in orbit; to what purpose? We don’t know.
Officially, the solar- and battery-powered X-37s are strictly experimental craft, supposed to to “demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform” while also “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” according to the Air Force.
“Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit,” is how Gary Payton, Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, explained the X-37′s mission. “They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works, then bring it all back home and inspect it to see what was really going on in space.”
However, when asked by more details about the experiments, the Air Force refused to release any more details – which raised protests from several governments, most notably Beijing, because at least theoretically, the X-37s can also carry sensors or gear for hacking enemy satellites.
This lack of information also makes a mockery of the alleged State Department’s international campaign for greater space transparency. It’s tragicomic to see this happen right after Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Frank Rose’s speech, which asked for transparency and confidence building:
“To avoid conflicts based on misperceptions and mistrust, it is imperative that we promote transparency and other confidence-building measures — in armaments, in threatening technologies, in space and elsewhere,” Rose said.
Some observers even question the plane’s official story:
“Because it is an Air Force project and details about it are classified, and because it does not have a clear mission compared to simpler systems, this project has generated confusion, speculation and in some cases concern about its purpose,” the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts-based think tank, stated in a November fact sheet.
Also, from an objective point of view, the X-38B design doesn’t make any sense for scientific use; and each and every mission which it could accomplish could have a better, more cost effective alternative.
“The ability to return to Earth carries a high cost,” according to the think tank’s fact sheet. “Many missions in space do not require bringing a spacecraft back to Earth, and the space plane makes no sense for those. And even in cases when return does make sense, a spacecraft can land using a parachute rather than wings and landing gear. While this ‘space plane’ could perform a range of missions, in each case we can identify a better, more efficient, and/or cheaper way of doing each of those tasks,” UCS concluded.
In the absence of any real explanation, we can’t really figure out what it’s real purpose is, and we have no idea what space planes are used for. I guess that’s the whole point.