The X-37’s uncertain fate

The Air Force's space boss said he'd be open to a discussion on the future of its ultra-secret space plane.

Air Force Space Command boss Gen. William Shelton gave a space version of the talk that both the chief and secretary of the Air Force have given this week at the big trade show: Everything we do in the space world is basically essential, Shelton said. From missile launch monitoring to GPS to cyber-warfare, you really can’t cut very much without endangering or eliminating some of the planks upon which high-tech life today is built, he said.

A few things, though, might be open to discussion at budget crunch time, Shelton acknowledged. Maybe SpaceCom could broaden its use of equipment that piggy-backs on third-party commercial satellites, rather than needing a dedicated U.S. government bird — but that’s limited because of security worries. And maybe SpaceCom could get better at cyber-warfare acquisitions; it needs to get faster and more efficient to keep up with the rapidly changing cyber game out there. And maybe SpaceCom doesn’t need its much-discussed, little-known space jet, the X-37B.

Nobody knows exactly what the X-37 is for — though there are lots of good guesses — though Shelton said Tuesday that it’s a “niche capability,” and that at some point the Air Force might need to have a capital-D Discussion about its future. One reason officials apparently wanted it was to get the ability to put a small satellite in orbit on short notice, and the Air Force or DoD may decide that potential isn’t worth the cost.

“There are many ways to get a payload into orbit,” Shelton said, including military and commercial vehicles and the X-37. “It’s very flexible, in that you’ve got a payload bay in which you can launch, then it comes down, then you can launch it back – but whether or not it’s cost effective, is the question. Whether or not there’s overriding operational utility that would overcome some of the business case aspects of it, is another question. There’s some work to be done here on the long-term future of that capability, would you want to do, dedicated, hosted, X-37 — it’s one of these optimization questions really.”

Not quite the same as if Shelton had said, “I hate this thing so let’s get rid of it,” but compared to his other remarks about the importance of the Space Command portfolio, it was telling that he appeared welling to at least discuss it.