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X37 Robotic Shuttle Launched For 270 Day Orbit

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Mr.Gary Payton

Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs

Media Teleconference (Pentagon)

X-37B Launch

2:40-3:30 p.m., 20 April 2010

 

Mr. Payton: It's an exciting time for me personally. I was working at NASA Headquarters when NASA started the X37 program back in the late '90s. So after a tumultuous history of sponsorship, it's great to see the X37 finally get to the launch pad and get into space.

As you probably understood, the primary objectives of the X37 is a new batch of reusable technologies for America's future plus learning and demonstrating the concept of operations for reusable experimental payloads. Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit. They'll run experiments to see if the new technology works, then bring it all back home and inspect it to see what was really going on in space. So this is a new way for the Air Force to conduct experiments and we're really excited about that.

 

With that as an overview, let me turn it back to Angie so we can get on with the questions.

Question: This is Alissa Chang from the Associated Press.

 

My question is, when is the expected landing date? I understand that it's coming back to Vandenberg. Will we be able to cover there?

 

Mr. Payton: Yeah, Vandenberg is the primary landing site, Edwards is the backup. Edwards has, of course, the large dry lake bed. In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back for sure. It depends on the progress that we make with the on-orbit experiments, the on-orbit demonstrations. So the top priority technology demonstration is, on this first flight is the vehicle itself. Getting it into orbit, getting the payload bay doors upon, solar array deployed, learning about on-orbit attitude control, and then bringing it all back. And so we'll have a set of test objectives for the on-orbit activities, but the vehicle itself, proving that the vehicle itself can get up in space, do a job, get back down. And then probably the most important demonstration is again on the ground. Once we get the bird back, see what it really takes to turn this bird around and get it ready to go fly again, to learn payload change-out on the ground, to learn how much it really costs to do this turn-around on the ground with these new technologies on the X37 itself.

 

So it's as much a ground experiment in low cost O&M, ops and maintenance, the low cost ops and maintenance on the ground as it is an on-orbit experiment with the vehicle itself.

 

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Question: Mark Matthews with the Orlando Sentinel.

 

Two quick questions. If the tests are successful is the Air Force looking to be able to build more of these planes? And what do you say to concerns about how this could lead to the increased weaponization of space?

 

Mr. Payton: We do have a second tail number on contract. Currently we’re looking at a 2011 launch for that second tail number. That assumes everything goes properly as predicted on this first flight. And truthfully, I don’t know how this could be called wedaponizatino of space. It’s just an updated version of the space shuttle kind of activities in space. We, the Air Force, have a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better.

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Question: Gordon Lubold, Christian Science Monitor.

 

I guess I would just wonder if you could explain a little bit more about what the flight will test and clarify one thing. Is there not going to be a specific payload on it this time, or is there going to be and you can’t tell us what it’s going to be? Can you give us some sense of it? There seems to be a lot of mystery around the flight and I’m not sure if that’s intended or not.

 

Mr. Payton: Like in many of our space launches, not all of them but many of them, the actual on-orbit activities we do classify. So we’re doing that in this case for the actual experimental payloads that are on orbit with the X37. But again, our top priority is demonstrating the vehicle itself with its autonomous flight control systems, new generation of silica tile, and a wealth of other new technologies that are sort of one generation beyond the shuttle.

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Question: But when it does come back down, what are the questions we should be asking, whenever that is. What are the questions we should be asking you as to whether it was successful or not? What are the things you’ll be looking for?

 

Mr. Payton: The top priority is an inexpensive turn-around. Can we do these new technologies, perform properly on orbit, and get the bird back on the ground? Do we have to do a lot of tile replacement, like we had to see early in the shuttle era. Do we have to do a lot of servicing? If that’s the case it makes this sort of vehicle less attractive to us in the future.

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Question: Turner Britton, Space News.

I’ve only ever seen the outside of this spacecraft. Is it similar to the shuttle with a bay on its back that opens up? Does it have some kind of catcher arm?

 

Mr. Payton: This particular flight there is no arm on it. I don’t even know if we’ve designed an arm for it. It has a payload bay similar to the shuttle. Unlike the shuttle it does not have a fuel cell power system. It’s got solar arrays plus lithium ion batteries, whereas the shuttle has hydrogen/oxygen fuel cells. So there are some differences. But the basic configuration is very very similar to the shuttle.

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Question: It could capture a spacecraft that’s already on orbit and bring it down for servicing or what have you?

 

Mr. Payton: Not on this flight. Again, this flight’s intend is the experiments themselves, both during ascent, during entry, and on orbit. But there’s no arm on this one.

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Question: Irene Klotz, Reuters.

 

I was looking at your resume and it reminded me a little bit about all the times a lot of us have probably run across your path. And it seems a lot like memory lane for a reusable launch vehicle. I’m wondering if you might just talk a little bit about how you intend to not have this vehicle come to the same fate as all the others, and if there’s also any plan to scale this up for any vehicle that might be useful in a civil space program as well. Thanks.

 

Mr. Payton: Clearly, I use the term piece part technology at the level of electromechanical actuators, and flight control subsystems and the tiles. There could be application to other designs, to other vehicles. We chose this basic design back in the late ‘90s because it shares pretty much the same outer mold line as the space shuttle, and a lot of the subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic environments we could trace right from the shuttle to this design. So it’s easy to rely on the shuttle’s aerodynamic knowledge base for this particular design. Again, the piece part technologies, subsystem technologies, could be applied to any number of future systems. For instance, just lithium ion batteries. There have been a few cases where satellites have been designed and flown with lithium ion batteries, but they are the newest sort of power storage technology that we’re using in space, so this again expands the knowledge base on lithium ion batteries.

 

So it’s a wealth of different subsystems that could be applied to any design, and this first bird and the second bird will prove all those. Again, the intent of X33, X34 and X37 were really to see if new technologies could ease the turnaround between flights, lower the O&M costs, lower the cost of ownership for these kinds of reusable systems.

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Question: Leonard David, Space.Com.

 

I’m must curious on a couple of little points. You’re talking about a turn-around time. What’s your hope for a turn-around time? What would be the most advantageous for the project?

 

Mr. Payton: We used to talk a week for birds like the X34 and such. If we were in a surge environment where we were putting up a whole bunch of satellites all at once over the course of a month or two kind of like an operational responsive space scenario. If we were talking a surge of small satellites, again, I would like to see this X37 handled much more like an airplane, maybe an SR-71. Not an F-16, but an SR-71 probably. Handled more like that than what we see with other space launch mechanisms, space launch vehicles.

 

Again, I don’t think we’ve set any specific goal, but I would think handling this bird more like an SR-71 and less like a routine space launch vehicle would be a good objective. That’s measured in several days, maybe 10, 15 days or less, something like that.

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Question: A quick follow-up. On reentry this thing, as far as I can tell, there’s no control over it from the ground. It’s on its own. Do you have a go/no-go? What kind of abort capability do you have if it somehow is not living up to the landing specs?

 

Mr. Payton: In fact I talked to some range safety folks earlier today. Let me rephrase that. People with range safety experience. This bird, we will send commands to it to close up the solar array and the payload bay doors and all that, and then tell it to do a D over burn at a certain time. Then it’s on autopilot, literally, the entire time the rest of the way in. But it does have, range safety will be tracking it over the Pacific and it does have a destruct mechanism on it.

I do not know the exact method for range destruct, but it does have a technique for range destruct during entry.

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Question: This is Michael Sirak with Air Force Magazine.

 

The Air Force and the DoD space community have two important events this week. One, X37, but also the anticipated launch of the first Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2. So I was hoping you could kind of compare and contrast what you will learn with those missions, and specifically state if there’s anything from X37 that will help your knowledge base as far as Prompt Global Strike, and if there’s anything from HTV2 that will help your knowledge base as far as reusable space access.

 

Mr. Payton: A good point. The HTV as it’s titled, is a hypersonic test vehicle. If you just look at the design of the two vehicles, the HTV has a much better hypersonic lift over drag than the X37 or the shuttle has. So that gives it much better cross range at high altitudes and high mach numbers. So that’s the dominant difference between the two. X37 has a different sort of thermo protection system on the outside because the environment that it goes through is much different than what the HTV would go through.

 

Both of them, again, getting back to things like flight control algorithms, getting to electromechanical actuators, those kinds of again, subsystem technologies are probably valuable to share results with, but again, the shape of the vehicle itself is dramatically different because cross range is so important to the hypersonic test vehicle.

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Question: Graham Warwick, Aviation Week.

 

Can I just understand, how is the vehicle being operated, where is it being operated from, and what level of operator involvement is there in the vehicle when it’s on orbit?

 

Mr. Payton: We’re going to get to orbit like any other Atlas or Delta payload. The rocket will be on its own guidance system, all the way into orbit and then deploy the X37. Then ground controllers will control the X37 just like any other satellite, monitoring the subsystems and telling it what to do. And then the reentry activity is, again, pretty much -- It’s going to be significantly different than the shuttle because the real time human control won’t be there every single instant of the orbit preps and de-orbit burn and then reentry. It will rely again on its own autopilot, its own gyroscopes, its own GPS receivers, and eventually its own altimeter. I forgot if it uses a laser altimeter or a radar altimeter for landing.

 

So it will be on its own all the way through entry and landing. That’s dramatically different than the way the shuttle does it. But by and large when it’s on orbit we’ll fly as if it was just another satellite.

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Question: John Croft, Flight International.

 

Can you talk a little about what I presume is a kick motor on the back of the vehicle, and what is new and different about the attitude control algorithms that you’ve been throwing out?

 

Mr. Payton: It’s just a regular hydrazine propulsion system. It’s not anything new and different in that regard. Again, the flight controls are the electromechanical actuators that run the elavons and the rudders and such and lower the landing gear, instead of hydraulic subsystem. Then the autonomous algorithms for reentry. That’s what’s new and different.

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Question: Bill Harwood, CBS.

 

You’ve been talking about the shuttle heritage in a sense. I’m just curious on your entry, on the software, on the controlled entry, can you tell us anything about the testing you’ve done to validate it and what commonality it has, if any, with other existing systems, or was this developed from the ground up for you guys? Thanks.

 

Mr. Payton: Similar to the mid ‘70s when NASA did the approach and landing test, there was a test article that we dropped from helicopter flights that did, again, the subsonic energy management aligned with the runway based on GPS signals, lower the landing gear at a certain altitude all by itself, then land on the center of the runway, and then apply braking. So all that was done autonomously on several helicopter flights, [unpowered] flights from helicopters. And that was, again, along the same mentality that NASA used back in the mid ‘70s with the shuttle Enterprise.

 

Relative to the longer term from the D over burn to this point where the bird turned subsonic. This program was started by the folks in Seal Beach who did the same development for the space shuttle so it uses the same sort of energy management techniques that the shuttle uses.

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Question: I have one follow-up for you. Have there been any design changes since the Air Force got a hold of the program from DARPA and NASA? Or are we heavily based almost entirely based on what NASA and DARPA [inaudible]?

 

Mr. Payton: Again, we want to capitalize on the work that NASA and DARPA did, predominantly from the aerodynamics perspective. That was our main intent.

This bird has been through all of the shake, rattle and roll, the vibration tests, the acoustic tests that any spacecraft would go through, so we were focused on keeping as much commonality with the prior work that NASA and DARPA had done, keeping that and just assembling this vehicle and then sending it through the rigorous environments so that we’d have confidence that it would work.

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Question: Bruce Ralston, Air Force Times.

 

Where will the aircraft be controlled at? Where will your mission control be? Which wing or organization in the Air Force will be handling that?

 

Also I wanted to ask, I know earlier you couldn’t discuss the cost, but what is the contracted cost for the model that’s still due, if that’s considered public?

 

Mr. Payton: Again, I don’t know. It’s all lumped in with our classified budget, so I honestly don’t know what the second tail number is predicted to cost.

 

The flight will be managed by Air Force Space Command’s 3rd Space Experimental Squadron, blue suiters out of Space Command.

 

Since this is a new experiment we haven’t established a stand-alone unique ground control operation out in Colorado Springs. I suppose that might be on our agenda sometime in the future. This organization called the 3rd Space Experimental Squadron is running the show for us.

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Question: A quick follow-up on in-orbit capability. Do you have, what kind of props on this thing? I know you can get up to like 500 nautical miles, something like that. Is there any expectation to do some orbit maneuvering of this vehicle to different altitudes?

 

Mr. Payton: Just the way we handle satellites in general. We would, and like we handle low earth orbit satellites. We move them a little bit with their own on-board propulsion system.

 

You’re starting to touch on the notion of using a winged vehicle to really change the inclination of the orbit by sort of dipping into the top of the atmosphere and turning and then bouncing back up off the top of the atmosphere. You need a very very good, very very high. Again, hypersonic lift over drag, in order for that to be beneficial. This bird does not have that high hypersonic lift over drag ratio that you would need to do that kind of maneuver.

 

Sorry, I didn’t intend to give a lecture on Aero 562.

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Question: Air Force Magazine.

 

You talked before about how this could handle a small sized satellite. In more lay person’s terms, what does that mean? Is the payload large enough to hold like a Volkswagen Beetle or an SUV? Can you give us some idea there?

 

Mr. Payton: You know our ORS program, Operation Responsive Space?

 

Question: Yes.

 

Mr. Payton: Maybe a couple of satellites that are a few hundred kilograms each.

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Question: Flight International.

 

Given the expense of going through this reusable vehicle, what type of interest is there in the Air Force in particular of bringing back payloads as opposed to just dropping them off?

 

Mr. Payton: The advantage of this vehicle is that you can take something up that’s new, you haven't ever flown it before, it’s new technology, and operate it on orbit, then bring it back and inspect it. Kind of a truck mode. You take it up and bring it back all in the same flight over the course of weeks or months. Shuttle has a limit of I believe 16 days on orbit. This bird can go a lot longer than 16 days.

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Question: Air Force Magazine.

 

Mr. Payton, what are the best adjectives to use to describe this mission? Is it revolutionary? How should we describe it?

 

Mr. Payton: I don’t know. I’m an engineer, not an English major. I would say that, again, if these technologies on the vehicle prove to be as good as we currently estimate, it will make our space launch, our access to space more responsive, perhaps cheaper, and again, push us in the vector toward being able to react to warfighter needs more quickly.

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Question: Turner Britton.

 

This is probably a dumb question. I guess I just don’t really get the final intent of the mission you’re looking for here. An Atlas 5 launch costs $200 million or something. So I can’t really figure out why you would want to take something up to orbit, test it, and bring it down, when you can kind of simulate all those things on the ground. The only thing that really makes sense to me is the ability to go up and get a spacecraft, maybe one that’s failed, bring it down, fix it, or see what went wrong and put it back up there. Am I on the right track there?

 

Mr. Payton: Project a spacecraft or new technology that we haven’t flown before and we want to expose it to that space environment and test again, not the X37, in the future not the X37 itself, but the stuff it carries. Test that new technology on orbit in the real world and then bring it back and inspect it. That’s one of the big advantages this bird offers. And you get to expose that new technology for a long time on orbit. Again, not just a week or two weeks on orbit, but for a long time.

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Question: Air Force Magazine.

 

You talked before about how this could handle a small sized satellite. In more lay person’s terms, what does that mean? Is the payload large enough to hold like a Volkswagen Beetle or an SUV? Can you give us some idea there?

 

Mr. Payton: You know our ORS program, Operation Responsive Space?

 

Question: Yes.

 

Mr. Payton: Maybe a couple of satellites that are a few hundred kilograms each.

 

In other words, in "lay person's terms," about one-half a VW Beetle. The old one, not the new one.

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Newly declassified details of the analysis behind the U.S. Air Force’s decision to opt for a next-generation Reusable Booster System (RBS) reveal a long-term preference for a rocket-based, combined-cycle upper-stage orbiter over the nearer-term expendable solution.

 

The RBS plan is in development to replace the Air Force’s existing Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) beyond 2025, and aims to cut launch costs by 50% by combining a reusable first stage with expendable upper stages. The booster would take off vertically and return to a runway landing at the launch site.

 

Details revealed in the joint U.S. Air Force Space and Missiles Systems Center/Aerospace Corp. study at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif., show that while expendable upper stages will provide the initial capability, “a rocket-based combined cycle (RBCC) orbiter is the preferred far-term solution.” The RBCC configurations would adapt to the RBS first stage for vertical launch but return for a horizontal landing.

 

Although the study held out some optimism for RBCC proponents in the long run, its findings could be a telling blow for supporters of air-breathing turbine-based combined-cycle (TBCC) hypersonic space launch concepts. Study officials say even though the TBCC performance indicates greater specific impulse than rockets, the reusable booster turned out to be smaller, lighter and less costly.

 

Design details of a new reusable rocket and air-breathing combined-cycle hypersonic vehicle aimed at the long-term orbiter role have also been unveiled at Space 2010 by Astrox, a Maryland-based research and development company. The design was developed after the company was commissioned to perform a comparative survey of eight alternative two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) configurations by the Air Force Chief Scientist Office, says Astrox President Ajay Kothari. These included Lockheed Martin’s Blackswift design for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, as well as Boeing’s FAST concept.

 

The RBCC design is the focus for an ongoing comparative study into reusable launch systems by the Air Force and NASA. The Air Force is evaluating a vertical launch system, and NASA a horizontal takeoff system. “We are about 85% complete with the study now, but the design is pretty much done,” says Kothari. Measuring around 158 ft. in overall length, the vehicle would carry a 20,000-lb. payload to low Earth orbit. After staging from the RBS at around Mach 3.5-4 and 75,000 ft., the vehicle would be powered by dual-mode ram/scramjets to a rocket transition point around Mach 10 and 95,000 ft.

 

Kothari believes the concept works where so many have failed because of the vehicle’s comparatively low dry weight. This is driven primarily by the move to a vertical takeoff, which reduces landing gear weight as well as wing size. The reduced loading demand on the gear for the vertical-launched concept restricts gear weight to around 5,000 lb. versus an estimated 35,000 lb. for the beefed-up gear of the horizontal takeoff version. The selection of an RBCC propulsion system over the turbine-based alternative also helps the equation with an installed engine weight of around one-fifth that of the turbine-powered vehicle.

 

The weight factors “work systematically to kill horizontal takeoff concepts, and the same thing happened with Blackswift. It also explains why horizontal takeoff has killed the possibilities that hypersonic technology could bring to this country, and that’s why we need to change the paradigm,” he adds.

 

The Air Force’s main focus remains for now on replacing the Atlas V and Delta IV with two versions of the RBS: a single reusable first stage and expendable cryogenic upper stage for medium-lift missions; and two reusable boosters and cryogenic core and upper stages for heavy-lift and growth missions. Initial operational capability is set for 2025, with EELVs being phased out in 2030.

 

Planning is underway to begin technology development for the reusable booster through two Air Force Research Laboratory demonstrators, more details of which were also revealed at Space 2010. The first is the RBS Pathfinder, already in initial planning and due to fly in 2013. A larger follow-on demonstrator, the RBX, is set to enter development in Fiscal 2012 and will be flight tested in 2016-17.

 

Although program officials say a solid concept demonstrator has yet to be completed, the outline Pathfinder is baselined with an NK-33 liquid oxygen (LOX)/kerosene rocket engine and will demonstrate the preferred “rocket-back” return-to-launch-site maneuver. The RBX, currently with a 60-ft. overall length, 34-ft. span and 9-ft.-dia. body, is designed as a demonstrator representative of the operational system. The vehicle is outlined with a gross liftoff weight around 230,000 lb. and will be powered by a LOX/kerosene RD-180 EELV engine. Another AFRL demonstration program—Hydrocarbon Boost—is developing a large LOX/kerosene rocket engine for the full-size booster.

 

As well as testing the rocket/fly-back maneuver, Pathfinder will help refine operational and rapid turnaround procedures and autonomous operations. RBX will test propulsion, avionics and airframe components to verify reusability.

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Guest Black Sun

The X-37B spacecraft is now now designated USA-212 in accordance with the United States’ system of naming military spacecraft.

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Guest Nobody

Most Russian experts insist that, USA-212 will be the implementation of Bush's "global lightning attack" one of the key elements of strategy, Barack Obama, authorities in April 6, 2010 updates fully support the nuclear doctrine a strategy, and for the deployment of strike weapons in space. This new hypersonic space-based will be able to carry deploy 150 kg combat weapons within a few minutes on any target on Earth's surface to fight.

 

In February 2010, Obama proposed a new U.S. space strategy - "space operations." U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Weilian Lin Commenting on the strategy, said that one of the key components of the strategy is to develop for the attacks in space against the threat of new satellites and take extensive action to eliminate weapons of various targets on the earth. The X-37B program is a realization of former President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative" program.

 

 

Russia today agreed that the space can be used to protect national security - for the international disarmament treaties and agreements to monitor compliance (through space surveillance systems), used for early warning of missile attack (by means of intercontinental ballistic missiles launch and flight detection system) for the command of the army and the security of their daily activities and operations (through the communications, navigation, meteorology, geo mapping support system, etc.).

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