SpaceX, U.S. Air Force to launch secretive robotic space plane from Cape Canaveral

SpaceX’s upcoming launch of a high-profile and valuable space plane marks a key milestone for the Elon Musk-led company.

The mission, which will launch one of the U.S. Air Force’s two X-37B robotic space planes, reflects the military’s trust in SpaceX to deliver its most valuable payload, a former NASA official said.

“The Department of Defense is getting more comfortable launching things into space on the Falcon [9],” said Ray Lugo, who served as director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland from 2010 to 2013. “They are willing to put something like the X-37, a crown jewel, on one of those. If you lost one of these, you’ve lost half the fleet.”

SpaceX said in a tweet last week, after a successful test fire, that the launch at Cape Canaveral is scheduled for Thursday. No time has been announced.

The Boeing-built plane is a 29-foot long, 9-foot, 6-inch tall vehicle that resembles a smaller version of NASA’s retired space shuttle. It will be mounted into the nose of one of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rockets, then sent into orbit.

The most recent X-37B mission landed May 7 at Kennedy Space Center, marking the end of a 718-day mission, the program’s fourth.

The Air Force does not share details about what the vehicle does in space. Theories have ranged from attacks on enemy country’s satellites to scientific research the military wants to keep to itself.

There is a “high feasibility” the plane contains sensors used for intelligence collection, said a June report by Secure World Foundation, which works with governments, industry and other organizations on space policy.

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“As much as the Air Force brags about the program, there is still a lot we don’t know about it,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation.

Other theories include deployment of small military satellites, repair of malfunctioning satellites or taking them out of orbit.

“While it does have some capability for orbital inspection, repair, and retrieval, it is unlikely to perform these functions given its limited payload bay and altitude range,” the Secure World Foundation report states.

Lugo said the X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, can serve as a laboratory for experiments.

“It’s a platform that has a lot of the basic systems, like communications, power propulsion, active cooling systems,” said Lugo, now director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Space Institute. “It can host payloads, too. You’re only building experiments and not the support infrastructure that way.”

The X-37B program includes two identical craft. Each has flown two missions. The first four missions had gone into space aboard United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June of the shift to a SpaceX rocket. ULA officials said in a statement that they were not given a chance to bid for the contract but remain committed to supporting national-security missions.

SpaceX referred all questions about the X-37B to the Air Force.

“Given the experimental nature of the X-37B, each launch acquisition is designed to meet the specific needs of the X-37B program,” Air Force Capt. Christine Guthrie said in an email. “The X-37B utilizes a combination of procurement approaches which are consistent with past X-37B missions and other Air Force experimental programs.”

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The ability to choose between multiple providers such as SpaceX and ULA isn’t about competition, Weeden said.

It allows the U.S. Air Force to launch at a quicker pace.

“I’d use the word ‘flexibility,’ ” he said. “If you’re stuck with one booster coming out of one facility, that’s not very flexible. It takes months, if not longer, to get that scheduled.”

The Orbital Test Vehicle is “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable unmanned space test platform,” according to the Air Force’s website.

X-37B craft began flying April 22, 2010. Their missions have totaled 2,085 days, or more than 5½ years. Its most recent mission was the first to land at Kennedy Space Center.

A sonic boom heard across the region that day surprised many in the area.

SpaceX, as has become customary, will try to recover the rocket’s first-stage booster for eventual reuse. SpaceX has done that 15 times.

Got a news tip? msantana@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5256; Twitter, @marcosantana

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