UPDATE (April 23, 2010): The X-37B was successfully launched at 19:52 EDT (23:52 GMT) yesterday, April 22.
ORIGINAL STORY (April 21, 2010): The Air Force's experimental X-37B spaceplane is on the pad at Cape Canaveral, FL ready for launch tomorrow evening on an Atlas 5, according to Spaceflightnow.com. Some call it a spaceplane, some call it a mini-shuttle, and its classified mission adds an air of suspense and mystery.
The program started as a NASA effort to build a crew taxi for the International Space Station. Cancelled after President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, it was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and then to the Air Force. In a media teleconference yesterday, Gary Payton, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs said that the mission duration is still up in the air: "In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back." The spaceplace will land at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA or Edwards Air Force Base, CA when it does return, and Payton emphasized that what they want to learn from the program is as much about what happens on the ground as in space.
"And then probably the most important demonstration is again on the ground. Once we get the bird back, see what it really takes to turn this bird around and get it ready to go fly again, to learn payload change-out on the ground, to learn how much it really costs to do this turn-around on the ground with these new technologies on the X37 itself.
"So it's as much a ground experiment in low cost O&M, ops and maintenance, the low cost ops and maintenance on the ground as it is an on-orbit experiment with the vehicle itself."
What it will do on orbit is still closely held, but Payton offered these comments:
"Like in many of our space launches, not all of them but many of them, the actual on-orbit activities we do classify. So we're doing that in this case for the actual experimental payloads that are on orbit with the X37. But again, our top priority is demonstrating the vehicle itself with its autonomous flight control systems, new generation of silica tile, and a wealth of other new technologies that are sort of one generation beyond the shuttle."
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