02
Feb
11

What’s a Space Plane?

In my current novel, Search and Destroy, the F-15 Eagle makes a cameo appearance, designed to whet the reader’s appetite for my next novel where America’s first and last defensive weapon against space-based weapons. With only one successful flight to its credit (as well as the fictional account of Major Amelia Nakamura when she shot the Kosmos 1801 down in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising), the only remaining iterations of America’s foray into defending space sit available, but not used.

The F-15 was designed to launch a defensive attack on a weapon that threatened the US from space. To do that, it would fly at Mach 1.22 at a 65 degree-angle, carrying ASM-135 ASAT missile. The missile is only 18 feet in length and 2700 lbs, small enough to be carried on the centerline pylon of the F-15. The pilot climbs at a sixty-five degree angle at Mach 1.22, and launches the weapon below the path of its target which it destroys by smashing into it.  During its first and only test, Major General Wilbert D. “Doug” Pearson flew the Celestial Eagle 76-0084, destroyed the Solwind P78-1 satellite orbiting over 375 feet above the planet.

At that time in history, people’s fear of weaponizing space was bigger than their fear of America’s enemies, so the ASAT project was mothballed. In 2007, Major General Pearson’s son, Capt. Todd Pearson, tested it while assigned to the Florida Air National Guard 125th Fighter Wing.

This was a long way around to a news story I read about the X37B, an unmanned space plane that was successfully tested for seven months by the US. Read this:

X-37b

X-37b

The winged craft autonomously landed at at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Vandenburg spokesman Jeremy Eggers said.“It’s very exciting,” Eggers said of the 1:16 a.m. PST landing.The X-37B was launched by an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on April 22, 2010, with a maximum mission duration of 270 days.Also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, the Boeing-built spacecraft was originally a NASA project before being taken over by the military.The Air Force has not said whether it carried anything in its cargo bay, but insists the primary purpose of the mission was to test the craft itself.“We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission,” program manager Lt. Col. Troy Giese said in a statement.“Today’s landing culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between the 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office,” Giese said.Eggers said the craft is expected to return to space next year.“I understand they are looking to do that in the spring of 2011,” he told The Associated Press.Officials have made public only a general description of the mission objectives: testing of guidance, navigation, control, thermal protection and autonomous operation in orbit, re-entry and landing.However, the ultimate purpose of the X-37B and details about the craft have longed remained a mystery, though experts said the spacecraft was intended to speed up development of combat-support systems and weapons systems.The voyage culminated the project’s long and expensive journey from NASA to the Pentagon’s research and development arm and then on to the secretive Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the X-37 program, but the current total hasn’t been released.While the massive space shuttles have been likened to cargo-hauling trucks, the X-37B is more like a sports car, with the equivalent trunk capacity.Built by Boeing Co.’s Phantom Works, the 11,000-pound craft is 9 1/2 feet tall and just over 29 feet long, with a wingspan of less than 15 feet. It has two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabilizer.

Unlike the shuttle, it was designed for launch like a satellite, housed in a fairing atop the expendable Atlas V rocket, and capable of deploying solar panels to provide electrical power in orbit.


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2 Responses to “What’s a Space Plane?”


  1. 1 Joseph R Kinz, MDE
    March 4, 2011 at 8:39 am

    The X-37B orbital vehicle is undoubtedly a “proof of concept” experimental “one-off” craft designed to test launch and horizontal landing feaseability for what will most likely be future orbital recon satellite craft capable of easy modification of orbital trajectories, and accomplish this at a “reasonable” cost effectiveness. It could be a cheap follow-on to the now defunct SR-71, and probably very expensive top secret hypersonic aircraft in present use. Keeping a possible hostile country guessing as to where and when an X-37B type vehicle might appear has obvious clandestine advantages for an aerial observation role.

    On the other hand, even the small size of the X-37B does not preclude small and stowable either MIRV thermonuclear or MIRV kinetic pinpoint accurate weapons. I don’t think that the USAF would rule out a reusable vehicle for any or all of the above-mentioned capabilities.

    The system itself is hardly “TOP SECRET” given all of the ensuing publicity, and the Air Force has some “propaganda” value in mind by releasing even minor details of the project, much less a plethora of unretouched photos of the X37-B. Only time will tell the tale.

    Wietchpec Joe
    Smiert teroriste!

    • March 4, 2011 at 8:53 am

      So it could be the reappearance of a space-based weapons defense, should there be a need? Fascinating. I’d hate to think we’d be forced to rely on 30-year old technology should the need arise.


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