SpaceX to Launch Secretive Robotic Spaceplane for US Air Force

X-37B OTV-4 landing

SpaceX, the upstart rocket maker that went to court for the right to bid on US national security launches and flew its first classified spy satellite to orbit in May, will launch the top-secret X-37B space drone in August, according to US Air Force secretary Heather Wilson.

It was thought SpaceX's first Air Force mission would be the launch of a Global Positioning System satellite announced previous year and scheduled for some time in 2018.

Because the X-37B program is largely a confidential military endeavor, the financial terms of the SpaceX deal were not revealed, and the company declined to comment.

This would seem to bear out based on what is now known of SpaceX's launch manifest, which prior to X-37B's August launch date announcement showed only two missions schedule from LC-39A that month.

SpaceX beat out legacy government rocket contractor United Launch Alliance for the next mission of the military's unmanned, reusable "space plane", fitted with advanced technologies designed for extended trips outside Earth's atmosphere.

The X-37B, which was built by Boeing, recently wrapped up its fourth mission.

This was seemingly confirmed by the U.S. Air Force Thursday evening, which issued a statement saying, "This mission will be the program's first launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 Upgrade launch vehicle". The switch to an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 demonstrates the increased trust the Pentagon puts in SpaceX to deliver important payloads to orbit.

Given the secrecy surrounding the X-37B, it's hard to say why and when the USAF awarded this contract to SpaceX.

McCain specifically wanted to know what is in the Air Force's $80 billion budget for the service's new stealth bomber, the B-21.

An X-37B spaceplane encapsulated inside the nose cone of a ULA Atlas V rocket before its first test flight in April 2010. The most recent X-37B mission was launched by ULA and ended about a month ago, after it spent almost two years in space.

The spaceplane weighs about 11,000 pounds and typically orbits at an altitude of 200 and 250 miles, according to Spaceflight Now. The Air Force said that all together, the four missions have spent a total of 2,085 days in space.

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