Space Coast Abuzz Over Mini-shuttle X-37B
September 30, 2012

USAF Could Make Mini-Shuttle Operations Exclusive To Florida

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The mysterious US Air Force (USAF) space plane that ended a top secret 15 month mission over the summer could have its base of operations consolidated to the state of Florida, according to recent media reports.

The unmanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which departed from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in March 2011 but landed at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in June 2012, could have its third flight both begin and end in the Sunshine State, an Air Force spokesperson told Florida Today reporter Todd Halvorson on Friday.

USAF Rapid Capabilities Offices representative Major Tracy Bunko said that officials were "looking at space shuttle infrastructure for possible cost-saving measures, including the potential for consolidating landing, refurbishment and launch operations at Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station."

"Those investigations are in an early state, and any specifics will not be known for some time“¦ But we are evaluating the feasibility of landing the X-37B OTV at Kennedy Space Center possibly as early as for the landing of OTV-3," Bunko added. Such a move, Halvorson said, "could be an economic boon for an area still reeling from the 2011 retirement of the U.S. shuttle fleet."

The Florida Today writer said that it is currently not known how many jobs such a relocation would bring to the area known as the Space Coast, which was forced to endure thousands of lost jobs in the wake of the shuttering of NASA's space shuttle program in July 2011.

"Such a move would almost certainly add dozens, if not hundreds, of civil service and contractor jobs that would help fuel a next-generation economic engine on Florida's Space Coast," Halvorson said. He added that the NASA has also been "actively attempting to convert its Apollo and shuttle launch site into a 21st-century spaceport, one where both the U.S. government and American commercial companies can carry out manufacturing and launch operations."

Boeing signed a deal last October to manufacture CST-100 commercial space taxis in one of the Kennedy Space Center's spare orbiter hangers, which is predicted to create over 500 jobs in just over two years' time. The US space agency is also considering opening up two additional shuttle hangars, as well as a pair of launch pads and the complex's Vehicle Assembly Building, to commercial developers, Halvorson added.

Like the CST-100, the X-37B was built by Boeing, and is similar in nature to a miniature space shuttle.

"Although the X-37B program is ℠classified,´ some of the particulars are known," Los Angeles Times writer W.J. Hennigan said shortly after the craft's return to the ground on June 16. "More than 10 years ago, it began as a NASA program to test new technologies for the space shuttle. But when the government decided to retire the aging fleet of shuttles, the Pentagon took over the program and cloaked it in secrecy."

"The spacecraft is about 29 feet long, or about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet tip to tip. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels. It is designed to stay in orbit for 270 days," he added.