Mysterious space plane has landed after three years in orbit

Originally published at: Mysterious space plane has landed after three years in orbit | Boing Boing


Mass driver.


Why now?

Seems there’s much to be seen in space and below these days.


it ran out of COVID it was dropping on us, needs to fill up with some of the new variants


I find it interesting that we abandoned the space-plane concept for manned missions after the shuttle was retired and returned to Apollo-style capsules; but for unmanned missions, the space-plane is apparently alive and well.


Makes sense to me. For crewed missions safety is paramount, and it’s way easier to have a launch abort system for a capsule that’s sitting on top of a rocket, and returning to earth via a simple heat shield and parachute system also has a lot less to go wrong. But if you want to have a vehicle with a decent sized cargo bay that allows you to retrieve objects from orbit and return them to earth then a spaceplane might be a good option.


It’s kind of depressing, but I’ll admit that this was my first thought. :slightly_frowning_face: (Or at least a platform test without actual penetrators. Secret or not, someone would probably notice if you set something like that off!)


It was a good TV show!
Steve Carell Dancing GIF by Space Force


I’ll talk: They were resupplying reloading the OADS system with a fresh batch of 50 pounders.


Space-aged weapons-grade stilton.


So Bush 2 ended NASAs space shuttle program to let commercial space flight take over and we spent a decade subsidizing various companies just to build a capsule to attach to a rocket was already in production.
Meanwhile, the DOD got sick of waiting and built their own drone space shuttle.


The STS also required all unique and single purpose hardware, whereas the x-37 is using Atlas rockets.

It’s easy really, the US wants shuttle capabilities but doesn’t need the additional weight and risk of humans and their support equipment. Most space vehicles don’t need humans on board.


The x-37 first flew April 2010, the last shuttle flight occured July 2011.
The Columbia disaster was 2003 and was probably when NASA and the feds began talking about an unmanned shuttle.


art + mass = the one or the other one…

Why have they not yet painted “Alien” teeth on the front of that thing, is what I want to know.


ISTR hearing someone speculate that the X-37 was intended to test the technique of skipping off the atmosphere to change its orbital plane.

That is an inherently dangerous thing to do, but the advantage is that you can potentially save a lot of fuel, because change of plane maneuvers are expensive. If you wanted to (say) station an illegal first-strike weapon in orbit, it would need to be able to change orbit at will in order to rod people on short notice; but it would also need to be in orbit for long periods, and so would have a very finite supply of fuel / reaction mass.

Shuttle was originally intended for military / civilian dual use, which accounts for some of its questionable design choices, but the Air Force seemed to mostly lose interest early on. Perhaps they realised they couldn’t go round bouncing the Shuttle orbiter off the atmosphere with people in it, and so shifted focus to a robot version. Or, equally possible, it doesn’t do anything and is just a boondoggle. That’s the beauty of not having to tell anyone what you’re using billions of dollars for.


I think the plane-like aspect is kind of a red herring, because none of these things are truly “space-planes” in the sense of taking off and landing on airstrips. The new plutocrat rockets don’t have wings but are more reusable than Shuttle was; conversely, the Shuttle orbiter did have wings but was basically a giant Soyuz capsule with just slightly more control.

If you think about the way Tom Wolfe tells it, making spacecraft look like planes may always have been more a cultural issue than a technical one. Most parts of space travel are nothing like flying.

(Though, as mentioned above, a capsule with wings can also use the atmosphere for manevering in orbit, so there is that)


Wikipedia says it started as a NASA project in 1999 before being transferred to the DoD. I’m sure that the priority went up after the Columbia though.


I wonder how hard it would be to cram a life-support pod inside that thing if the DoD wanted to conduct some covert crewed missions without anyone else finding out about it.