Guessing the Mysterious Purpose of Military's Unmanned Spaceship X-37B

No one is quite sure how to react to the Air Force's space drone

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The X-37B unmanned military spaceship launched from Cape Canaveral on Thursday night, officially beginning the age of space drones. If successful, it will perform the first-ever unmanned space re-entry and landing. Run by the Air Force, the program is drawing a measured mix of awe at the technology and concern at the prospect of military hardware floating overhead. Here's what people are saying.

  • Orbiting Predator Drone?  The Christian Science Monitor's Mark Sappenfield throws up his hands. "How long the mission will last, what it hopes to accomplish, and what, exactly, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is designed to do are all mysteries," he writes. "For its part, the Air Force has sought to quell conjecture that the X-37 might be some sort of orbiting Predator drone, dropping weapons from space. ... This being the military, however, there are questions about whether that is the whole story. With the Air Force divulging few details about the craft or its mission, even defense experts are unsure about the program. Is this a protoype of what will become a fleet of Air Force spaceships or is it an end in itself?"
  • Maneuverable Satellite  Unlike a normal, fixed-position satellite, BBC's Paul Rincon explores its benefits over a normal, fixed-position satellite. "Conventional satellites were vulnerable to missile systems because they followed predictable paths in orbit and were relatively easy to spot. The X-37B could evade attempts to shoot it down with anti-satellite (A-sat) weapons. And if enemy forces know when spy satellites are due to fly over their territory, they can limit sensitive activities to times when there are no passes by reconnaissance spacecraft. The X-37B could spring a surprise by virtue of its maneuverability."
  • Cheap, Versatile Space Platform  Wired's Jason Paur writes, "The military has been looking into the idea of an orbital space platform for decades." According to an official, "the primary goal is to see if the system is a viable option for the Air Force." The official said, "Top priority is an inexpensive turn around. ... Do we have to do a lot of servicing? If that’s the case, it makes this kind of vehicle less attractive to us in the future."
  • Decline of Manned Military  Wonkette's Ken Layne sighs, "Drone craft kill the brown people our government doesn’t like and mysterious new pilot-free space planes zoom around the Earth, waiting for a signal. The Time of the Robots is here. The recruiting storefronts in the half-empty strip malls should be going the way of Bed Bath ‘n Beyond pretty soon now."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.