By Mark Wachtler
July 1, 2012. Vandenberg AFB. (ONN) According to the federal government, the US space shuttle program ended one year ago this month with the retirement of the nation’s entire shuttle fleet. What they don’t tell us is that government officials are only talking about NASA’s space shuttles. Unknown to most Americans, the US Dept of Defense has its own space shuttles and they’re still busily going back and forth to space, carrying out top secret space missions.
X-37B unmanned military space shuttle. Image courtesy of Boeing.com.
NASA’s space shuttle fleet
When the nation decommissioned its space shuttle fleet last year, ceremonies were held across the country and private, scholastic and corporate interests began bidding to acquire ships like the Shuttle Atlantis and the Shuttle Endeavour. According to NASA’s website, “NASA’s space shuttle fleet began setting records with its first launch on April 12, 1981 and continued to set high marks of achievement and endurance through 30 years of missions…The Final space shuttle mission, STS-135, ended July 21, 2011 when Atlantis rolled to a stop at its home port, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.”
Going forward, the four space programs the US officially has on the calendar will utilize single-use rockets for launching satellites and other small probes. Those programs include; International Space Station operations, Landsat Data Continuity Mission, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), and Radiation Belt Storm Probes.
Secret US Space Shuttles
With all the talk over the past year about the end of the American space shuttle program, many were surprised when one of the Defense Department’s space shuttles landed at Vandenberg Air Force base in California two weeks ago.
Only sparsely reported in the US by Reuters and ABC OTUS News, the secret shuttle was reported as far away as The Guardian in the UK. A summary of all three accounts provides a number of details about the secret US space shuttle program. For starters, the space missions and vehicles are not necessarily for peaceful or scientific purposes. These are military space vehicles most-likely being used for military purposes.
X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle
While China celebrated its first-ever launch of a female astronaut last month, the United States quietly overshadowed their accomplishment by showing the world the next generation of space travel. As the US retires its aging fleet of manned space shuttles, it has inadvertently shined a spotlight on its unmanned space shuttles.
The X-37B is a space shuttle by design and use. The space vehicle was designed by Boeing as a reusable aircraft with the ability to carry cargo and equipment to and from space. The X-37B looks just like a typical space shuttle. The only obvious differences are its windowless construction, shorter wings and overall smaller size.
As The Guardian explains, ‘Little has been said publicly about the second X-37B flight and operations’. Various reports seem to indicate the USAF has two unmanned space shuttles. One returned from a space mission in 2010 after spending 7 months in space. The second shuttle returned from its mission two weeks ago after completing a 15-month mission in space.
The X-37B unmanned space shuttle is a smaller version of its manned NASA counterpart. Roughly one-quarter the size of the NASA shuttles, the Defense Department’s X-37B’s are 29 feet long and have a trimmed wingspan of only 15 feet. The absence of a human crew enabled designers to eliminate all the cumbersome, bulky and extra equipment needed keep people safe and alive. The shuttles were launched into space by an Atlas 5 rocket.
According to the Defense Dept., the two unmanned space shuttles are only test vehicles designed and produced by Boeing Phantom Works. Government officials have refused to acknowledge any operations or missions other than simply testing the performance of the X-37B space shuttles. As explained in the Reuters report, NASA’s manned shuttles were propelled by hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells, while the Air Force’s unmanned shuttles are powered by gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.
Speculation about secret missions
In the latest mission of the DoD’s unmanned X-37B space shuttle which landed in California two weeks ago, everyone from amateur astronomers to New World Order conspiracy theorists have been speculating about what the shuttle was doing while in orbit. The Air Force would only confirm that the shuttle, “conducted on-orbit experiments”.
The Guardian reports that even though the USAF insists it was only a test mission, there was in fact, ‘a classified payload on board’. The account goes on to quote various experts discussing the few mission details. One individual believes the shuttle delivered a new spy satellite sensor “judging by its low orbit and inclination, suggesting reconnaissance or intelligence gathering rather than communications.” Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell was also quoted suggesting it might be a test of a new form of imaging.
Whatever the US military is up to in space is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain, it won’t be ending anytime soon. Then next launch of the X-37B space shuttle is scheduled for this fall. As always, the Defense Department isn’t releasing any details.
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