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The Air Force is to launch the first test flight of the X-37 pilotless space plane Wednesday. It's meant to stay aloft for months, but its mission is secret, leading some to worry about its purpose.
Clear, sunny skies are forecast for Cape Canaveral Wednesday, perfect weather for the launch of a new unmanned spacecraft and the dawn of an era. Just don’t expect the Air Force to tell you what that new era is.
For the first time, the service will launch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a brand new, unmanned spacecraft to demonstrate the military’s ability to fly into space, circle the globe for months on end, and return intact, only to fly again.
But whether the X-37 space plane is merely showing off nearly two decades of research and development or is actually a precursor to militarizing the final frontier, is far from clear since the vehicle’s payload is classified. An Air Force official won’t even say when it will return to California or where it will land. But it can “loiter” over the globe for more than nine months.
“In all honesty, we don’t know when it’s coming back,” said Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary for the Air Force’s space programs, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
'Weaponization' of space?
Arms control advocates say it is pretty clearly the beginning of a “weaponization of space” – precursor to a precision global strike capability that would allow the US to hover for months at a time over anywhere it chose with little anyone could do about it.
“The idea of being able to launch an unmanned research platform that can stay up there for months on end provides you with all kinds of capability, both military and civilian,” says Chris Hellman, a policy analyst with the National Priorities Project, a budget watchdog in Northampton, Mass.