SpaceX’s reusable rockets may have the lion’s share of attention and media buzz but the US Air Force has also something to boast that is both closer to home but also more daring. The Boeing-made X-37B spacecraft, or more accurately spaceplane’ has just landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Sunday, October 27 at 3:51 a.m. Not only is this the vehicle’s third successful landing, it is also the longest time an X-37B has flown in orbit, finally crossing the two-year threshold.
The Air Force’s X-37B program is less ambitious than SpaceX’s interplanetary travel goals but it is, at the same time, also more daring. The idea of keeping a spacecraft flying in orbit for years, landing them and reusing them, and even test new systems while in space is by no means a small task. It’s no surprise that this achievement is being celebrated not only by the USAF and Boeing but the space science community at large as well.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 5 or OTV-5 launched on September 7, 2017, onboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicle. The fifth launch finally broke the program’s record and, after 780 days in orbit, has finally crossed the two-year mark narrowly missed by the OTV-4 in 2015. The craft made a safe and successful landing which bodes well for its chances of flying again. This particular vehicle, actually the second X-37B, has already flown three times now.
Considering that the spaceplane was designed originally for only 270 days in orbit, reaching almost three times that length is quite an accomplishment. The US Air Force boasts that the X-37B is the world’s only reusable space vehicle (rockets don’t count), one that opens the doors for even more lab experiments and small satellites riding on the craft in future missions.
With five successful orbital flights in its belt, the Air Force definitely isn’t stopping now. The next OTV flight is expected to happen sometime in 2020 though there is no word yet on the specific goals of that mission.