REALSPACE: What's next for the X-37 Space Plane?

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Though the US no longer has a manned space program (Thank you very much, Mr. Anti-science president), we've still got some unmanned programs. Of course the NASA end of that is kinda' sucking fumes as the Obama administration's plans to turn the agency into a theme park continue apace.

The US Air Force, however, has much more latitude on what it can and can't do with their R&D budget, and they've always insisted on some degree of access to space independent of the more high-profile NASA. (NASA has always fought the USAF over this, wanting *all* access to space to be their own, thereby allowing the agency to do nothing whatsoever with vastly greater efficiency.)

Last year, as Neorandomizer reported, the USAF launched the first of their X-37 reusable spacecraft. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-37 This is interesting because (A) it has crazy long endurance for missions (about 9 months) and (B) at present, nobody really has any idea what it's being used for. As I write this, the X-37B is wrapping up the second orbital mission for these birds, both of which were evidently significant successes.

Clearly they're intended to have National Defense applications, but Boeing is looking at other uses as well. Most notably, MSNBC reports:

>>Meanwhile, Boeing has begun to look at derivatives of their X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle — including flying cargo and crew to the International Space Station.
Speaking this week at the Space 2011 conference —organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and held in Long Beach, Calif. —Arthur Grantz of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems sketched out a host of future uses for the space plane design.
For one, the X-37B, as is, can be flown to the space station and dock to the facility's common berthing mechanism. No new technology is required for X-37B to supply cargo services to the ISS, Grantz said. Also, an X-37C winged vehicle has been scoped out, a craft that would ride atop an Atlas 5 in un-shrouded mode.
The Boeing roadmap, Grantz added, also envisions a larger derivative of the X-37B space plane, one that can carry up to seven astronauts, as well as tote into Earth orbit a mix of pressurized and unpressurized cargo.<<

So: The ISS may be more-or-less useless, but we paid for it, and even if we can't get people up to it anymore, we will at least soon have regained the ability to send beer and chips up to our Russian and European overlords, who now run it.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44764396/ns/technology_and_science-space/#.T...

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