Pentagon plans to keep X-37B spaceplane under Air Force management

The reusable X-37B spaceplane is prepared for encapsulation inside the payload fairing of an Atlas 5 rocket ahead of a launch scheduled for May 16. Credit: U.S. Space Force

The U.S. military’s X-37B spaceplane program will remain under Air Force management for the foreseeable future, and won’t join other Pentagon space programs turned over to the Space Force after the establishment of the new service branch last year.

The Air Force’s two reusable winged X-37B spacecraft, built by Boeing, have launched on six classified missions, testing out new space hardware, deploying small satellites, and performing other clandestine duties on missions that have logged years in orbit several hundred miles above Earth.

The X-37B program, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, is managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. The office is headquartered in Washington and “expedites development and fielding” of military support and weapon systems, and also oversees projects on accelerated development timelines, according to a military fact sheet.

Randy Walden, director and program executive officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said Aug. 13 in a virtual forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies that his office will remain in charge of the X-37B program.

A Space Rapid Capabilities Office headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico was established in 2018 to replace the military’s Operationally Responsive Space, or ORS, program. Most of Space RCO’s efforts are classified.

Walden said the Air Force RCO will retain the X-37B program, but added his office will “continue the collaboration” with Space RCO and the U.S. Space Force.

“Right now, we plan on keeping that,” Walden said, referring to the X-37B program. “There’s a lot of interest in reusable space vehicles right now. We’ve gained a lot of information in the decade we’ve been operating that system, and I think it’s provided unique and relevant insight into some of the newer technologies that would actually go to space and inform how they would build those systems. So we’re going to continue doing that.”

The Space Force was established in December 2019, and other military space programs — such as GPS satellites and military communications networks — have been moved from the Air Force to the new service branch, which is still part of the Department of the Air Force.

Walden said the Space Force, Space RCO, and the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland could provide payloads to fly on X-37B missions. The AFRL has flown payloads on previous X-37B flights, and the Naval Research Laboratory is flying a space-based solar power experiment on the X-37B spaceplane currently in orbit, which launched May 17 from Cape Canaveral aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

The current X-37B mission is the sixth flight of the spaceplane since 2010, and it debuted a new service module on the rear of the spacecraft to provide additional capacity for payloads and experiments. The X-37B also has a payload bay in its fuselage with doors that open and close after launch and before re-entry and landing.

“We’ve got what we call a service module up there, and the service module really is the thing that used to connect to the upper stage booster,” Walden said. “It allows us to actually put a lot more experiments on there. So we’re actually increasing the type of capability and experimentation that we can do on each launch. We’ll continue that in the future.”

Walden said his office has experience in managing and flying X-37B missions.

“Right now, I think it would be unfair to transition it to somebody else and expect them to understand it overnight,” he said.

Walden did not rule out the possibility that the Air Force could transition the X-37B program to the Space Force in the future.

Before the launch of the sixth X-37B mission in May, the two Boeing-built spaceplanes had accumulated 2,865 days in orbit on five previous flights. The longest X-37B mission to date lasted 780 days — more than two years — stretching from September 2017 until October 2019.

The unpiloted spacecraft launches inside a payload shroud on top of a conventional rocket, unfurls a power-generating solar array in orbit to generate electricity, and returns to Earth for a runway landing like NASA’s retired space shuttle. The X-37B measures more than 29 feet (8.9 meters) long, about one-quarter the length of a space shuttle orbiter, and has a wing span of nearly 15 feet (4.5 meters).

The X-37B program began under NASA management before transferring to DARPA in 2004, then to the Air Force in 2006.

The National Aeronautic Associated announced last week it awarded the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy to the X-37B spaceplane.

“Underscoring the importance of space to the nation, the Collier Trophy celebrates the record-setting mission of the X-37B,” said Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, in a statement. “Most Americans use space daily for navigation, information, and communication. Sophisticated and uncrewed, the X-37B advances reusable spaceplane technologies and operates experiments in space that are returned for further examination on earth.”

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