Pentagon planning for space bomber

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Pentagon planning for space bomber

Documents show how X-plane could be used by military

LAST MAY 19, well out of the glare of the media spotlight, the stubby 22-foot-long unmanned spacecraft rolled to a stop at 6:17 a.m. on the hot, dry lakebed of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

It was the seventh and final flight test of the subscale mockup of Boeing’s X-37, called the X-40A. The experimental space plane, being tested by NASA but funded in part by the Air Force, had been dropped just two minutes earlier from an Army Chinook helicopter at an altitude of 15,005 feet. It had reached a maximum speed of only 304 mph. None of the numbers was earth-shattering or even remarkable.

What was remarkable, however, was the long-term vision of Air Force planners.

The next generation of America’s bomber fleet will be a far cry not only from World War II’s B-17 but from the stealthy B-2 bomber as well. Speed to target is likely to be just as high a priority as a bomber’s payload in the 21st century.

In interviews and in computerized briefings obtained by NBC News, Air Force planners and others have provided the most complete details yet on the outline of the space bomber program, showing just how it would work, what it could target and what munitions it would use.

This program isn’t merely a planner’s blue-sky vision. Pentagon officials and Boeing admit it is currently on the table for funding beyond the minimal $16 million the Air Force has already sunk into testing the prototype.

“I think it will be built,” says William Martel, a member of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board and the editor of “Technological Arsenal,” a new book about the military’s latest technologies. “This is the most advanced of the space operations vehicle programs. It may be 10 to 15 years away, but it fits nicely into (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld’s revolution in military affairs. It gets into defending the high ground, quick strike capability, quantum leaps in technology and the need to focus on Asia.”

In June, Rumsfeld directed the Pentagon to investigate “suborbital space vehicles” that “would be valuable for conducting rapid global strikes,” according to a Pentagon planning document issued under his name. And as recently as last month, Boeing said it was talking to the Air Force about investing millions of dollars more in Boeing’s X-37.

Then, in congressional testimony this month, Gen. Michael Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, acknowledged that a futuristic “space bomber” is being contemplated by the Pentagon’s long-range planners.

Before President Bush came into office, the space bomber idea had a rocky flight.

In 1998, the Clinton administration used a line-item veto to force the Air Force into folding its military spaceplane ambitions into the NASA X-plane program. In return for its minimal investment, the Air Force got an agreement from NASA to increase the X-37’s ability to stay on orbit and maneuver, preserving its military utility.

NASA’s X-plane testing program is, for now at least, the prototype for the Pentagon’s planning. While there was a lot of publicity about the freeze on NASA’s X-33 “Venture Star” program this March, two months before the Edwards test, there has been little about the continuation of the military space plane project.

John Pike, director of and a critic of increasing use of space by the military, says that the Pentagon does not want to draw attention to the program.
“The clandestine aspect is integral to why it would be fun for them,” said Pike, referring to Pentagon planners. “While it’s not black, it is an awful dark shade of gray. The plan appears to be to sort of acquire a momentum outside of public purview. At other times, that wouldn’t be interesting, but with Darth Rumsfeld at the controls, saying, ‘We have to control the cosmos,’ the practical instrumentalities carry a greater significance.”
“In other words, these guys might actually do it.”
By netchicken: posted on 1-5-2003

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