Space Shuttle Jr.
After 2010, the only spaceplane in the U.S. inventory will be the Air Force's mysterious X-37.
- By Michael Klesius
- Air & Space magazine, January 2010
(Page 4 of 4)
Still, Lewis admires the X-20 from an engineering standpoint: "When we look at Dyna-Soar, we say: Gosh, that's the program we should have had. Imagine if we had a cheaper way to get to the International Space Station."
Unlike Dyna-Soar, the X-37 will always be unmanned. Without humans who would limit the amount of time it could orbit, the little spaceplane might be able to stay aloft for as long as nine months. Operationally, the X-37 could become a space version of a long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle—the world's first space UAV.
Even with no astronauts, however, safety will be a big issue—in this case, for the payload. After the 2003 disintegration of the shuttle Columbia, mission planners developed concepts that would protect the X-37 from a similar fate: damage from insulation coming loose during launch. One idea had the spaceplane perched vertically atop a booster, an odd configuration that resembled an aerospace awards trophy. Still, the spaceplane would ride safely above any insulation that broke off.
But the aerodynamics posed a problem. "People learned thousands of years ago that you don't fly arrows with the feathers first," says John Muratore, NASA's former chief engineer for the canceled X-38, an emergency return vehicle for ISS crews. "Feathers in the tail are stabilizing and feathers in the front are destabilizing," he says, referring to the wings of an exposed spaceplane perched vertically atop a tall, cylindrical booster.
So the Air Force covered the new little spaceplane with a launch shroud. For now, two big problems have been solved: The rocket should fly right, and when they roll it out to the launch pad, no one will see that the X-37 is inside. Hidden. In plain view.
Michael Klesius is an Air & Space associate editor.