What if…and the “Pentagon’s Space Plane”

Wired’s Danger Room blog recently posted a story about the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B “Space Plane,” claiming it Boeing might soon scale it up to accommodate up to six astronauts. Danger Room questions this outcome, as do I. So I must ask, if not to carry humans, what will the ship be used for?.

The X-37B is basically a mini-Space Shuttle that is launched atop an Atlas V rocket and flown robotically. The X-37B is capable of maneuvering in space, carrying small payloads, and returning up to nine months later, landing like a plane. Boeing has built two. The first flew from April to December 2010, and the second was launched in March of this year. The larger model, the X-37C, would have room for five seated astronauts and one stretcher (Danger Room assumes for medical evacuations from the International Space Station). The X-37C could be also be robotic or flown by an astronaut.

The thing is, getting that model certified would be terribly expensive, and the military is likely to face large budget cuts in the very near future. When private companies like Space X have a head start on the development of a new model for manned space travel, why would the Air Force (and Boeing compete)? Additionally, given that even NASA has also expressed a preference for capsule-like spaceships instead of plane-like ships for the future of manned space travel, we should not be surprised when the head of Air Force Space Command, General William Shelton, questions the cost effectiveness of the X-37B and X-37C.

But might the X-37B and X-37C perform missions other than manned spaceflight? From the beginning, the use of space has always had a military component. Lately, as China develops their program, some competition has developed, and that competition has led to some displays of technology and force, with both China and the U.S. using missiles to destroy satellites in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

Just as a reminder, the Outer Space Treaty prohibits WMD in orbit or in outer space, but it says nothing about conventional weapons in space (one must remember that items in space, such as an anvil, are not WMD. But when pushed out the back of a space ship, become WMD when they land on Earth).

So what could the X-37B and X-37C do? As mentioned in another Danger Room post, the mysterious nature of the craft is raising eyebrows. What if the maneuverability was used to hide its intentions and limit detection? What if the payload was used to carry sensors, satellites, or weapons (either anti-satellite or space-based weapons platforms)? What if the ship was used to pluck a rival’s satellite out of orbit and bring it back to Earth? What if the payload could be used to clean up “space junk” (picture a space-based Wall-E)? What if Boeing sells or licenses the designs to a company aiming to rival Space X? Nine months is a long time to operate in secret.

What do you think will be the future of the X-37B and X-37C? How will budget cuts affect the ships? Will it be used to carry astronauts or something else? Or will Boeing mothball the entire project?