The safe landing of Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) after more than 15 months in space is an indisputable triumph for the U.S. military and space industry. Much less certain is the X-37′s future.
Budget cuts, labor woes and the looming specter
of a Chinese rival could blunt the diminutive robo-shuttle’s orbital edge.
After OTV-1′s proof-of-concept flight from April to December 2010, OTV-2′s mission became an endurance test.
The key to the X-37′s marathon flight: fuel and energy management.
Even so, Air Force controllers on the ground had
to pay close attention to the X-37′s orbital profile and its use of engines,
batteries and extendable solar panels.
Some observers speculated that OTV-2 was monitoring China’s Tiangong space station, a notion that Secure World Foundation analyst Brian Weeden dismissed.
In any case, the X-37 partially fills a gap left by the retirement last summer of the much larger NASA Space Shuttle.
Boeing has proposed to build a bigger X-37C
version that could carry more experiments, more cargo - and even astronauts.
In September, Air Force Space Command boss Gen. William Shelton questioned the space plane’s worth.
Complicating the Air Force’s budgetary calculations, Boeing is in the process of shutting down the cutting-edge facility in Huntington Beach, California, where the X-37s were hand-assembled.
In recent years Building 31, as the facility is
known, has been a labor battleground between Boeing management and its
rank-and-file engineers. The company plans to shutter the facility next
year. Possible future X-37s could be built elsewhere, but the loss of
Building 31′s skilled workforce could drive up the cost.
Currently the Air Force plans to launch OTV-1 on its second mission this fall, with OTV-2 possibly to follow on its own sophomore launch sometime next year. If the Air Force continues improving the X-37′s performance, these coming missions could be even more amazing than the just-completed record-breaker.
But that’s assuming the money keeps flowing.