On April 19 the U.S. Air Force will launch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle from Cape Canaveral, FL. The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is a robotic spacecraft designed to test the guidance, navigation, control, thermal protection, and the self-directed operations during the take off, flight and landing.
This small vehicle was no small feat; the project began in 1999 as a collaboration between NASA and Boeing, each splitting the $173 million it would cost to get the project up and running. In 1999 it was thought that the X-37 would launch in 2003, but in 2002 NASA and Boeing entered another contract, this one for $301 million, to build an orbital version of the X-37 for 2006. After that NASA essentially lost interest in the project and turned it over to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency who, in 2006, began testing the X-37 using Scaled Composite LLC’s White Knight jet to perform drop tests. The Air Force got hold of the X-37 and began working on the X-37B which they hoped would fly in 2008.
According to a defense research analyst from RAND Corp. the X-37 is a “prototype of a vehicle that could carry small payloads into orbit, carry out a variety of military missions and then return to Earth.” The Air Force is using it “to continue full scale development and orbital testing of a long-duration, reusable space vehicle. “