The nation’s first space plane, built, in part by engineers in Seal Beach, touched down today after completing a historic 469-day test mission.
Boeing announced the successful de-orbit and landing of the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. time today, concluding a 469-day experimental test mission. It was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on March 5, 2011. It was originally scheduled to land in December at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, but the Air Force extended its flight. The vehicle is designed to stay in orbit for 270 days, which is much longer than a manned space shuttle. It’s the first United States space plane that is automated and can reenter the atmosphere and land on an airstrip to be used again.
"We congratulate the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on this second successful mission," said Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of Government Space Systems. "With OTV-1, we proved that unmanned space vehicles can be sent into orbit and safely recovered. With OTV-2, we tested the vehicle design even further by extending the 220-day mission duration of the first vehicle, and testing additional capabilities. We look forward to the second launch of OTV-1 later this year and the opportunity to demonstrate that the X-37B is an affordable space vehicle that can be repeatedly reused."
OTV-1 was the nation’s first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own. Previously, the space shuttle was the only space vehicle capable of returning to Earth and being reused, Diana Ball, Boeing spokeswoman said in an email.
“The innovative X-37B combines the best of an aircraft and a spacecraft into an affordable, responsive unmanned vehicle,” said Ball.
The X-37B is built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, the same unit that designs and delivers satellites used for communications, navigation, intelligence, and weather monitoring, she added.
“While details of the mission, the contract value, and the number of Boeing employees assigned to the program are classified, I can confirm that work on this program is performed in California at Boeing's Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, and El Segundo sites,” said Ball.
The launch of the space plane caught the attention of officials in China and Russia because of the craft’s potential for use as a weapon or for spying. Russia has its own version of an unmanned spacecraft.
“This is the first spacecraft that is able to autonomously land,” said Maj. Tracy A. Bunko, an Air Force spokeswoman. “It has some very advanced space technology inside.”
Designed like a miniature space shuttle, the X-37B is only 29 feet long. Unlike a space shuttle, it can orbit Earth for more than a year without anyone aboard to operate it. The support systems required to sustain people in space are vast and expensive, explained Bunko.
Unlike a satellite, the X-37B can re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land on an airstrip. The experiments inside can be collected, and the space plane can be reused.