The new space craft’s launch occurred without much fanfare. On April 22, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B prototype roared into orbit atop a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Some 15 years in development, the X-37′s technology, performance and purpose all are cloaked in mystery. Two months after the unmanned vehicle’s launch, it is still in orbit, performing its unspecified tasks behind the military’s veil of silence and ambiguity. That has caused concern among potential rivals of the U.S.
The X-37, which looks like a quarter-scale Space Shuttle, is just 29 feet long from nose to tail and boasts a 14-foot wingspan. Its payload bay is “the size of a pickup truck bed,” according to Brian Weeden, an analyst with the Colorado-based Secure World Foundation. The X-37 uses a combination of solar power and batteries to power it during flight. Like the Space Shuttle, it glides back to Earth and can be re-used after a period of reconditioning. The cost of the program since its mid-1990s inception has never been disclosed, but Weeden told World Politics Review the sum is probably “in the billions” of dollars.
“The primary objective of the X-37 is [testing] a new batch of re-usable technologies for America’s future, plus learning and demonstrating the concept of operations for re-usable experimental payloads,” said Gary Payton, the Air Force’s under secretary for space programs. “Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit. 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. So this is a new way for the Air Force to conduct experiments, and we’re really excited about that.”
But what those payloads and experiments might be, the Air Force isn’t saying. It’s possible that the X-37 represents a powerful military capability that could prompt a space-based arms race. It’s equally likely that the new spacecraft’s missions are strictly peaceful in nature. Either way, the ambiguity itself could pose a strategic risk.