The second Boeing X-37B OTV (orbital test vehicle) touched down at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., on June 16 after a 469-day mission (USA-226). OTV-2 had launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on board an Atlas V launch vehicle on March 5, 2011. The first X-37B mission (USA-212) with OTV-1 was launched on April 22, 2010 and landed on December 3. Thus, the X-37B has now successfully accomplished two automatic recoveries of a vehicle from space. The only time this has been achieved before was the unmanned launch and recovery of the Soviet Buran shuttle in 1988.
Although it began as a NASA program, the X-37B was transferred to the Department of Defense in 2004, and the nature of its payload and mission have not been revealed, other than reference to the testing of space-based technologies. When asked about the X-37’s payload, Roger Krone, president of Boeing Network and Space Systems, replied, “We don’t get to play with what it does, from an engineering standpoint.” Mission USA-226 was to have concluded after the design endurance of 270 days, but mission control extended it.
The first X-37B, OTV-1, is scheduled to return to space later this year. Boeing has proposed a larger vehicle, the X-37C, which could not only carry larger payloads, but could also offer a manned capability so that it might serve as a crew shuttle for the International Space Station.