America’s Secret Space Plane Lands After 2 Years in Orbit

We know the X-37B exists...but we don't know what the government uses it for.

We at The Drive have waxed poetically about America’s lack of a reusable space craft (among other issues) from time to time, but to be honest, we’ve been waxing in vain. The United States government does indeed have a spaceplane in its arsenal to this day: an unmanned, short bus-sized lifting body made by Boeing called the X-37B. 

Thing is, we don’t know exactly what the X-37B does. But whatever it does, it sure takes its sweet time doing it. On Sunday morning, the Air Force brought the X-37B back to Earth after 718 days in orbit, landing the craft at Cape Canaveral for the first time. 

The almost-two-year-long mission was the fourth expedition into space for the X-37B, and its longest yet. (The previous orbital excursions lasted 224, 469, and 674 days, respectively.)

“The landing of OTV-4 marks another success for the X-37B program and the nation,” X-37B program manager Lt. Colonel Ron Fehlen said in a statement. “This mission once again set an on-orbit endurance record and marks the vehicle’s first landing in the state of Florida. We are incredibly pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and are excited about the data gathered to support the scientific and space communities.”

How it’s a success for the nation remains rather vague. The Air Force remains as tight-lipped as ever as to what the X-37B does up there, only stating that “the X-37B program performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.” Based on the craft’s previous flights, space watchers have hypothesized that the Air Force could be using it for reconnaissance, as the X-37B has taken similar orbital paths to spy satellites. 

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Previously, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office described the space plane endeavor as “development and fielding of select Defense Department combat support and weapons systems,” according to The New York Times; however, representatives have denied that the ship is being used to haul weaponry into orbit. 

While the space plane does have the ability to carry a payload into orbit (or, theoretically, back from it), its cargo bay is only seven feet by four feet, making it just big enough for, say, a single photon torpedo.