October 14, 2011
In our December 2009 issue we noted that: “Operationally, the X-37 could become a space version of a long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle—the world’s first space UAV.”
Now it looks like we might be about to see that happen. The second test mission for the U.S. Air Force semi-secret spaceplane, launched in March, has passed 200 days in orbit, and is on track to continue past the initial flight’s 225-day run. The original plan was for the X-37B to orbit for 270 days, but as Space.com has reported, the Air Force seems confident that it will extend the test if everything continues to operate normally.
After years of speculation about the vehicle’s ultimate purpose, we’re also starting to see some solid information, including a paper presented by Boeing’s Chief Engineer for the Experimental Systems Group, Arthur C. Grantz, at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SPACE 2011 conference in September. In it, Grantz discusses the benefits and uses of an unmanned, reusable space vehicle and the option for a derivative vehicle that can carry humans, as well.
Boeing bills the X-37 as, of course, a replacement and an improvement over NASA’s space shuttle orbiter, at least when it comes to carrying experiments to and from low-Earth orbit. Unlike the shuttle, the unmanned X-37B can stay in orbit for months. With the shuttle retired, it offers a way to gently return fragile experiments from the space station, saving them from a risky high-impact landing aboard a Soyuz. (It can also carry much more mass than the cramped Soyuz). Grantz says the X-37 will “operate more like [an] airborne space platform” where the reusable bus can adapt to a variety of payloads with “a true ‘plug and play’ integration environment.”
The X-37B is the model currently in orbit, but Boeing has on the drawing board a 160- to 180-percent larger version called the X-37C. Though still significantly smaller than the space shuttle, the X-37C could “provide both cargo and crew transport to and from the ISS, Bigelow Space Habitats, or other forms of space tourism in LEO,” writes Grantz, and could be launched “comfortably” atop an Atlas V-type rocket.
Inside the cargo bay, pressurized and unpressurized modules could be adapted to fit any combination of cargo and up to six people. All of the space plane’s maneuvering — rendezvous, docking, deorbiting, re-entering, and landing – would be done autonomously, but there’s room for a back-up pilot who would have “a virtual wind screen view and direct optical periscope views.”
With this summary from Boeing and the declaration that future versions of the X-37 would be directed at the space tourism industry, it seems that the once super secret Air Force space plane might soon be ready to take off the veil.
April 28, 2011
On May 5, 2011, Bonhams auction house will hold its annual space history sale. (The date commemorates the 50th anniversary of Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in Freedom 7.) Some 250 items are up for grabs, a few coming from the Forbes Collection, others from the personal collections of various astronauts, and some from the estate of NASA administrator James E. Webb. Here are six of our favorites from the list:
Left is one of Alexei Leonov’s spacesuits, this one from the July 1975 Apollo-Soyuz test project. In March 1965, cosmonaut Leonov made the first spacewalk in history, beating American Ed White by almost three months. Floating outside his capsule for 10 minutes, Leonov felt, he writes, “like a seagull with its wings outstretched, soaring high above the Earth.”
On July 17, 1975, the final Apollo spacecraft docked with its Soyuz counterpart, and the two commanders, Tom Stafford and Alexei Leonov, shook hands through the open hatch of the Soyuz, symbolically ending the space race. Bonhams’ catalog notes that “Leonov wore this space suit during the docking operations, and during launch and re-entry. The Sokol-K suit was categorized as a ‘rescue suit’ since it was not suitable for EVA use, but was designed to protect the wearer in the event of spacecraft depressurization…. The Sokol-K was first used on the Soyuz 12 mission in 1973 in response to the loss of the Soyuz 11 crew whose spacecraft depressurized during re-entry.” The suit comes from the Forbes Collection, and is estimated to fetch a whopping $100,000 to $150,000.
Lot 34, right, is none other than the certificate from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale confirming astronaut Alan Shepard’s May 5, 1961 flight.
In order to qualify for the record of manned spaceflight, the FAI (the governing organization for aeronautical world records) decided that the pilot had to take off and land in the same vehicle. When Yuri Gagarin re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on April 12, 1961, he ejected from his spacecraft, as planned, and landed separately by parachute. Gagarin’s ejection was covered up by Soviet authorities, however, and the truth wasn’t discovered until 1971, by which time the FAI had certified Vostok 1 as the first successful manned spaceflight.
The document at right confirms records set by Shepard in the “non-air breathing manned rocket” category: (a) altitude without Earth orbit, and (b) greatest mass lifted without Earth orbit. The document is estimated between $8,000 and $12,000.
Who could forget the story of Number 65, also known as HAM the chimp? HAM (his name was an acronym derived from Holloman AeroMedical Research Laboratories, where he was sent for training) was one of six chimpanzees-in-training. On January 31, 1961, the little guy flew 157 miles into space, and reached a maximum velocity on his suborbital flight of 5,857 miles per hour. This brass disc, lot 18, is expected to bring between $2,000 and $4,000.
Below is what may be the largest model airplane in the world, a model of the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde. That’s right, it’s 50 percent scale, approximately 102 feet long, with a 42-foot wing span, and is estimated to weigh 24,000 pounds.
Bonhams’ catalog notes that in 1996, British Airways commissioned the Texas firm L&L Tooling to build this model. “The cost of the model is believed to [have] been $980,000. It was transported to New York City on five trailers, and assembled in situ by a local sign company, four stories up atop the Times Square Brewery on 42nd Street…. At night it was lit from inside…. The model was taken down in 2001, when the Brewery building made way for a tower block. Initially BA planned to reuse the Concorde model in a different site, but it ended up being transferred to the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, where it has remained, largely undisturbed, for the last decade.” If you’d like your own Concorde, be prepared to shell out $100,000 to $150,000.
Maybe you’d like to have both air and space represented in your yard. Why not add this full-scale Saturn V F-1 engine model, left, to your landscape? This 19-foot-tall model was built for the 1964-1965 World’s Fair, held in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Bonhams’ catalog notes that “At the fair was a Space Park which featured scale models of Gemini-Titan and Mercury-Atlas rockets, the Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7, an Apollo CSM and LM, and the SI-C first stage of the Saturn V, complete with its five F-1 engines. In the decades following the Fair, most of the models remained in place. In the early 2000s, the New York Hall of Science expanded into the Park, tidying up, and restoring the models. The Saturn V first stage was dismantled, and its model F-1 engines were distributed between several museums.”
Interested buyers beware: the model is being sold in situ, and is currently located in Garden City, New York. The winning bidder will have to remove the model from its current location no later than July 5. The estimate is $15,000 to $25,000, plus the cost of removal and shipping.
Looking for something more historic? How about a early rocketry manuscript by none other than Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the man who invented space travel?
This eight-page manuscript, dated 1912, is titled “Latest thoughts regarding construction of jet devices, in the work The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices.” Tsiolkovsky is considered, along with Hermann Oberth and Robert Goddard, to be one of the founding fathers of rocketry and spaceflight, and is said to have inspired both Wernher von Braun and Sergey Korolyov.
Beneath the rocket sketch Tsiolkovsky has written, “Certainly many are frightened by this progressive idea [rocket flight], but life itself will make mankind do everything possible to solve this problem. The conquering of solar space is a necessity dictated by the experience of all history of mankind.”
The manuscript comes with an authenticating letter from the director of the Tsiolkovsky Museum in Kaluga, Russia, and is expected to bring $12,000 to $18,000.
December 6, 2010
Like all good spooks, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37 orbital spaceplane came in from the cold—in the middle of the night, of course—on December 3 after a seven-month inaugural orbital test flight. It’s shown here at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, its primary landing spot, shortly after touchdown. It blew its left tire during the landing, possibly due to debris on the runway, according to Richard W. McKinney, a deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs. McKinney gave reporters the Air Force’s first briefing on the mission this afternoon at the Pentagon. Other than the blown tire, which the Air Force is still investigating, the first flight was deemed a success.
McKinney insisted that the X-37 is strictly a test platform for an unmanned, reusable spaceplane, but declined to address questions about its payload or the program’s cost—both are classified.
Here’s all we know about the X-37. Look for an update in the next issue of Air & Space Magazine.
And here’s the only video released so far by the Air Force:
August 26, 2010
You may have read about the X-37B, the U.S. Air Force’s new unmanned orbital spaceplane, in our January issue. The secretive satellite with space-shuttlesque delta wings made its first launch on April 22 of this year atop an Atlas V rocket, and has been in orbit since, visible on the web via a number of satellite tracker apps such as this one.
That is, until July 29, when the spaceplane mysteriously disappeared. It took two weeks of cat-and-mouse before amateur astronomers got a fix on it again, roughly 19 miles higher and traveling in a different orbital plane. Looks like the little satellite is living up to its predicted versatility, and its shady reputation. The Air Force has disclosed that the X-37 can stay in space for up to nine months, at which point it will return like the space shuttle and glide to a pinpoint landing at Vandenberg or Edwards Air Force Bases in California.
July 30, 2010
Forecasting technology is a notoriously tricky business. In spite of all the predictions, we still don’t have fusion power or flying cars, but in 2010 you can kick around a virtual soccer ball using a handheld camera phone, and who saw that coming?
It’s the job of the Air Force Chief Scientist and his colleagues to look around periodically, see what technology is current and what lies just ahead, and try to extrapolate as best they can. The last such planning exercise was in 1995. Now, after a year-long study, the Chief Scientist has come out with a new “Technology Horizons” report, a roadmap for navigating the technological landscape the Air Force can expect between now and 2030.
There are enough gadgets in the 171-page report to make any tech freak’s heart beat faster, from brainwave-controlled machines to hyper-precise bombs to atomic clocks that fit on a computer chip. Many have the same overarching theme: The Air Force expects to rely much more on computers and less on humans (say goodbye to pilots). This is far beyond remotely piloted airplanes, folks. A quote from the report: “By 2030 machine capabilities will have increased to the point that humans will have become the weakest component in a wide array of systems and processes. Closer human-machine coupling and augmentation of human performance will become possible and essential.” And of course, our enemies will have access to abundant, cheap technology, too, which will make the job even harder.
If it sounds like the opening scenes of The Terminator, well…remember that Ahnold’s persistent cyborg came from the year 2029.
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