The second copy of the Air Force’s X-37B robotic space plane landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California early Saturday morning, ending a record-breaking 469-day orbital mission that began atop an Atlas rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 5, 2011. The safe landing of Orbital Test Vehicle 2 after more than 15 months in space is an indisputable triumph for the U.S. military and space industry. Much less certain is the X-37′s future. Budget cuts, labor woes and the looming specter of a Chinese rival could blunt the diminutive robo-shuttle’s orbital edge.
The Boeing-built X-37B, in development since the 1990s, was designed to operate nine months at a time between refueling and refurbishment. But with just two copies of the roughly billion-dollar space plane in the inventory, the Air Force wanted to get as much mileage as possible out of each. After OTV-1′s proof-of-concept flight from April to December 2010, OTV-2′s mission became an endurance test. “One of the goals of this mission was to see how much farther we could push the on-orbit duration,” said Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the Air Force’s X-37B program manager.