Shrouded in a veil of secrecy, a miniature unmanned space shuttle returned to Earth on Friday morning, landing successfully at Vandenberg Air Force Base following 224 days in space for its inaugural mission.
Military officials would only confirm the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle touched down at Vandenberg, continuing to maintain Cold War-era secrecy that has smothered the Air Force vehicle’s mission as it operated 171 miles above the Earth.
“It was an exhilarating morning watching more than a year of hard work culminate with X-37’s safe landing here,” Col. Richard Boltz, 30th Space Wing commander, said in a written statement. “We’ve had a very busy first six months of my tour here, and this is a great way to cap off the year. The X-37’s landing is a historical first for the Air Force and Team Vandenberg performed magnificently.”
Vandenberg’s first spacecraft landing occurred on the 3-mile-long runway built for the West Coast space shuttle mission, but never used due to the program’s cancellation.
But the pictures of the smaller shuttle — it weighs 11,000 pounds, compared to 200,000 pounds for the orbiter — hinted at what might have been prior to the program’s cancellation after the Challenger tragedy nearly 25 years ago.
For the X-37B landing, Air Force officials reportedly erected a wide zone around the airfield to keep away even spectators with access to Vandenberg.
Residents eager to see the first spacecraft landing at Vandenberg were disappointed to hear that the expected time and other details were being kept secret.
Vandenberg officials said there weren’t any reports that anyone heard the sonic boom from the re-entry as it glided toward Vandenberg.
Later Friday, the vehicle was towed to a nearby facility at Vandenberg for further processing, what officials are calling the refurbishment phase.
“We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission,” Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager from the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in the Air Force press release.
For months officials have been tight-lipped about the trip home, only saying the vehicle with a 15-foot wingspan and length of 29 feet could stay in orbit for up to 270 days. Confirmation that landing was near only came after the military issued notices to pilots and boaters to remain out of the area near the runway, prompting reporters to query Vandenberg officials.
Air Force officials at the Pentagon declined questions Friday, referring to a written statement and scheduling a teleconference for Monday.
Asked to explain the secrecy, Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Barb Carson said, “I’m not going to have an answer for that.”
Air Force officials said the X-37’s primary objective is proving the reusable vehicle works, including its autonomous flight control system. Ultimately, the vehicle could carry assorted experiments and reusable technology.
The X-37B, built by Boeing, actually began a decade ago as a NASA project and then was taken over by the Defense Advanced Research Project’s Agency. But when the those agencies abandoned the program, the Air Force stepped up via its Responsive Capabilities Office.
“I would have to say if you look at the long strange trip this thing has been on over the last decade or it’s been a capability in search of a mission,” said John Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank he founded and leads.
With 10 years of history, he estimates the X-37B program price tag at $2 billion.
“It’s gotta be a couple billion dollars easily,” he said. “It’s got to be in that ballpark.”
He suspects the vehicle carries a variety of experiments.
“I can easily imagine this thing stuffed with little science fair projects whose results are almost incomprehensible to normal human beings,” Pike said.
Air Force officials remained mum about what specific experiments were carried on the vehicle, and have denied characterizing the mission as the weaponization of space.
The Air Force plans to launch a second X-37B vehicle in March from Florida, but officials Friday couldn’t say if Vandenberg would be the landing site for that vehicle. While Vandenberg is X-37’s primary landing site, officials have said Edwards Air Force Base is an alternative.
“This marks a new era in space exploration, and we look forward to the launch of the second vehicle in 2011,” said Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of Experimental Systems and program director for the X-37. “By combining the best of aircraft and spacecraft into an affordable, responsive unmanned vehicle, Boeing has delivered an unprecedented capability to the RCO.”