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Will the Air Force Finally Get a Spaceplane?

If Boeing's X-37 can maneuver politically as well as in space.

Outside the Pentagon, space warfare proposals are sure to spark international debate over the 1967 “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” Better known as the Outer Space Treaty, it bars countries from using the moon or other celestial bodies as military bases. It also bars countries from launching “weapons of mass destruction” from space, though it omits mention of conventional weapons. “There are no treaty limitations here,” Wolfert says.

Joanne Gabrynowicz, a space law scholar at the University of Mississippi, disagrees. The intent of the space treaty was “to ensure space [remains] a stable environment used for peaceful purposes,” she says. “The goal was to not introduce the cold war to space, the horror of weapons floating around in orbit. That’s just as true today.”

To Wolfert and other strategists, the distinction between air-based assets and spacebased assets is an arbitrary one. “I guarantee you that if people start seeing American forces dying on CNN, that policy concern will evaporate in about 10 seconds,” Wolfert says.

Surface-to-air missiles “are very lethal systems,” he continues. “If you wish to stay ahead, you need to be able to counter them. It’s a chess game. He moves a piece. You move a piece. If you wait till that threat environment exists, it’s too late.”

A panel that sets Air Force missions recently urged the Pentagon’s multi-service Joint Requirements Oversight Council to approve two mission-needs statements that could justify space weapons. Mission-needs statements typically precede formal White House budget requests for development of new weapons.

Meanwhile last fall, in response to Air Force interest, the Phantom Works began designing a refined spaceplane, the X-40C. It’s a step back from the original, aggressive approach on the X-37. Air Force officials would be content to release a payload in orbit and safely return the vehicle to the runway in the service’s first test of a reusable spaceplane. The X-40C would be launched on an expendable rocket, Wolfert says, but the timing is dependent, of course, on funding.

Boeing’s Grantz is confident that the X-37 will be important in the development of any reusable vehicle that will maneuver in space. “We’re thinking [the Space Maneuver Vehicle] will look very much like an X-37,” he says. And although the Air Force didn’t get the payload or maneuverability it wanted, if NASA and Boeing manage to finish a second X-37 and boost it toward orbit, it’s hard to imagine that Air Force officials won’t be watching. Unless of course they have something better hiding behind a blue curtain somewhere.

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