Gary Payton, Air Force deputy undersecretary of space programs, scoffed at speculation that the X-37B space plane is the vanguard for a space weapon fleet and said its main purpose is to test space technology, not orbital weapons.
"I don't know how this could be called a weaponization of space," Payton told reporters this week before the launch. "Fundamentally, it's just an updated version of the space shuttle kinds of activities in space."
Payton's comments were aimed at questions from reporters on how the secretive nature of this X-37B may appear to other countries with and without assets in space.
The unmanned X-37B space plane, now known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 1, actually began its life as a civilian project founded by NASA in 1999 to test landing and other spacecraft technologies. NASA turned the program over to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004. The Air Force took control of the project in 2006. [X-37B spacecraft photos.]
Space policy analyst Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, has told SPACE.com that the X-37B could either be a major advancement in human spaceflight or be the unmanned end result of the Air Force's dream of building a crewed space plane.
"In any case, it is likely that other countries will see it as another capability intended to assure the United States will be able to dominate access to and the use of space," she said in an earlier interview.
Spaceship or weapon?
Payton said that the X-37B launch is primarily aimed at testing fundamental technologies for reusable spacecraft and space applications.
"If these technologies on the vehicle prove to be as good as we estimate, it will make our access to space more responsive, perhaps cheaper, and push us in the vector toward being able to react to warfighter needs more quickly," Payton said.
But it is the spacecraft's appearance as a rapid-response vehicle that can be launched on unmanned rockets has led to some speculation of its potential as a space weapon.
"Regardless of its original intent, the most obvious and formidable [potential use] is in service as a space fighter - a remotely piloted craft capable of disabling multiple satellites in orbit on a single mission and staying on orbit for months to engage newly orbited platforms," comparative military studies professor Everett Dolman, if the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at the Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., has told SPACE.com. That capability "would be a tremendous tactical advantage."
Dolman said it's still too early to determine what the ultimate use for the X-37B, or any future successors, may be.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1 was built by Boeing in Seal Beach, Calif., and weighs about 11,000 pounds (about 5,000 kg). This SPACE.com X-37B graphic illustrates some details of the space plane and its relative size.
Mini-shuttle in space
Air Force officials have said the X-37B will be tested as a "flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment."
The space plane's payload bay can fit a couple of small satellites to be launched and deployed, but it does not have a robotic arm to grapple objects in space and retrieve them. That means it could be used to support military operations oversees by rapidly deploying space-based assets like small communications or reconnaissance satellites.
"This launch helps ensure that our warfighters will be provided the capabilities they need in the future," said Air Force Col. Andre Lovett, 45th Space Wing vice commander, Launch Decision Authority for the mission, after the launch.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle also has a long loiter time in space. It has a solar array tucked in its payload bay that can keep it powered up for around 270 days, Air Force officials have said.
"We, the Air Force, have suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better," Payton said.
Payton has said he envisions the X-37B has functioning much like the SR-71 Blackbird spy aircraft, being on alert in times of need to fly a mission that could support military operations. The time between flights, during a rush period of many space launches, could be as little as 10 to 15 days, Payton said.
It is still unknown how long the first X-37B will remain in orbit. But when it returns, it is expected to autonomously fly itself through the Earth's atmosphere and land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with Edwards Air Force Base as a backup.
- Photos of the X-37B Space Plane
- Top 10 Space Weapons Concepts
- Air Force Launches X-37B Space Plane on Mystery Mission
SPACE.com Space Insider Columnist Leonard David contributed to this report from Boulder, Colo.