Sunday, June 17, 2012

Americans: Do You Know What Your Government Is Flying In Secret? - UPDATED

Neither do I... but if the Guardian is right, apparently it looks something like this:

Supposedly Secret Unmanned X-37B Shuttle

The Guardian has such details as are available to me (it's ironic but unsurprising that my only source is a foreign news org). The one significant thing I noticed is that the budget for the craft is "[h]undreds of millions of dollars" but the actual total is secret. If you ever wondered how much of your tax dollar is going to off-the-books projects... keep on wondering. The craft has reportedly been on two missions so far, each lasting several months. If you're wondering what it did in those months... keep on wondering.

What am I bellyaching about? Simple: there's no budget to produce a working successor to the Space Shuttle, which had a combined scientific and military mission, but "hundreds of millions of dollars" have been spent on a secret military vehicle with more limited capabilities and no known civilian mission. Can you say "aerospace/defense industry boondoggle," children? I knew you could!

UPDATE: Bryan of Why Now? provides additional information in the comment thread that leads to a different assessment of the utility of these vehicles, which he says are not secret (though their cargoes may have been). I have to defer to his greater knowledge of aerospace matters. I still don't like finding out about it after the fact, from a news source overseas.


  1. It reminds me of the vehicle Steve Austin crashed at the start of the Six Million Dollar Man!

  2. Maybe it is, jams; if so, we'll never know! :-)

  3. Actually this was the prototype for a cargo ship replacement for the shuttle with several other prototypes that were going to function as crew vehicles, that's why it is an 'X' vehicle.

    There are only two of them and they are used to haul stuff into orbit for testing. The advantage is that the stuff being tested gets returned to earth to be checked out. If one of the payloads fails in orbit, they get it back to find out what went wrong.

    If the original X-37 project had gone forward, the final craft would have been two or three times larger than the prototype.

    There's nothing particularly secret about the X-37, but the payloads it takes into orbit are probably very classified satellites and sensors.

    This is a very cost effective program, as opposed to the old practice of sending things into orbit and hoping they will work. It also gets some work out of two test vehicles for a project that wasn't funded in the end.

  4. Bryan's right, I had heard of the X-37 too. I didn't know it was still being flown, I had thought that all those old shuttle replacement experimental vehicles had been scrapped, but I certainly knew it existed. The payload bay is supposedly 4' by 7' and the working payload is probably on the order of 200 pounds total, so it's not as if it's going to carry sharks with lasers (or just the lasers) into orbit. It could probably serve as a reusable spy satellite -- my best guess for why it was lurking around in orbit for over a year -- without the expense of having to de-orbit a spy satellite after its useful life is over (i.e., after its hydrazine for maneuvering starts running low, since these satellites are in orbits too low to sustain without occasional blips to get them higher). But that's probably the only military use this thing could ever have.

  5. The only defense I can offer for apparently getting it wrong is that my source was the BBC, not exactly a supermarket tabloid. I still don't know whether to be glad or sorry the program was canceled.



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