An Atlas V rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral on Saturday, sending the USAF’s automated X-37B space plane into orbit for the second time. The launch, which occurred at 5:46 pm EST, had been delayed one day due to weather.
“Launch is a very demanding business and having what appears to be a successful launch is always welcome news,” said Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs Richard McKinney. “It is important to remember that this is an experimental vehicle; that this is just the second launch; and that we have just started what is a very systematic checkout of the system.”
The Boeing-built space plane was launched last April on a 224-day mission that ended on Dec. 3 with automated landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Air Force officials expect the second vehicle’s mission to last about 270 days.
“History was made in December when the X-37B became the United States’ first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own,” Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems, said in a statement. “The success of that mission validated this reusable and effective way to test new technologies in space and return them for examination.
“Today, we took another important step with the successful launch of the second OTV, enabling the RCO to further experiment with the vehicle and its ability to operate in low-Earth orbit,” Cooning continued. “Close teamwork between the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the United Launch Alliance Atlas team, and the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station made this launch a success.”
The X-37B’s program objectives include space experimentation, risk reduction, and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.
Boeing’s decade-long involvement in reusable space vehicles includes support to the Air Force Research Lab’s X-40 program, NASA’s X-37 program, and the DARPA’s X-37 Approach, Landing and Test Vehicle program.