Credit: ULA

Credit: ULA

The X-37B Air Force space plane is being readied for launch next month.

According to the United Launch Alliance (ULA), an Atlas V 501 booster will loft the “AFSPC-5” mission for the U.S. Air Force no earlier than Wednesday, May 20, 2015. AFSPC stands for Air Force Space Command.

The reusable and unpiloted winged craft will be launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

This flight marks the fourth flight of an X-37B – also in the past labeled as Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) missions.

 

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility in April 2010, in Titusville, Fla.  Courtesy photo/USAF

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility in April 2010, in Titusville, Fla.
Courtesy photo/USAF

 

 

The reusable X-37B looks like a mini version of NASA’s now mothballed space shuttle fleet. This military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.5 feet (2.9 m) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m).

The X-37B’s payload bay is the size of a pickup truck bed.

What is carried inside that payload bay is classified, as are the overall mission goals of the space plane.

As for the upcoming flight, its mission description, according to ULA: “This mission will be launched in support of the national defense.”

Track record

The first OTV mission began April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

Launched on December 11, 2012, the third X-37B space plane mission (using the same craft that flew on the first flight) undertook the longest space trek so far of the program – 674 days. The X-37B soared its way back to Earth on Oct. 17, 2014.

All three missions landed on autopilot at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

In the past, all three X-37B missions landed at Vandenberg AFB in California. Credit: USAF

In the past, all three X-37B missions landed at Vandenberg AFB in California.
Credit: USAF

But that may change for the forthcoming X-37B flight, perhaps landing in Florida.

Florida touchdown?

The X-37B is built by Boeing Network & Space Systems, the same unit that designs and delivers satellites used for communications, navigation, intelligence, and weather monitoring.

Only two X-37B vehicles have been confirmed as being built.

While details of the X-37B effort, the contract value, and the number of Boeing employees assigned to the program are classified, work on this program is performed in California at Boeing’s Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, and El Segundo sites.

Early in 2014, it was announced that Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems has consolidated its space plane operations by using NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a landing site for the X-37B.

Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base last year after completing 674 days in space. A total of three X-37B missions have been completed, totaling 1,367 days on orbit. Credit: Boeing

Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base last year after completing 674 days in space. A total of three X-37B missions have been completed, totaling 1,367 days on orbit.
Credit: Boeing

Boeing has expanded its presence in Florida by adding technology, engineering and support jobs at the space center. As part of that Boeing plan, investments were made to convert the former space shuttle facility, Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1), to a structure that would enable the U.S. Air Force “to efficiently land, recover, refurbish, and re-launch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV),” according to Boeing representatives.

At the time of the announcement in 2014, this construction was to be completed by the second quarter of 2015, Boeing representatives said.

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