What The X?! What The X-37B Means To U.S. Space Policy

Posted: November 24, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Following its 22 April launch, the Air Force’s X-37B is now about seven months into a mission duration that has been described as capped at nine months and as Spaceflightnow.com reports,

Observers tracking movements of the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B secretive space plane report the spacecraft is dropping altitude, a possible sign the clandestine mission is near landing as it approaches the limit of the its design life.

So how does the “clandestine” and “secretive” X-37B line up with these key elements of the administration’s new National Space Policy?

  • The United States calls on all nations to share its commitment to act responsibly in space to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust
  • The United States will engage in expanded international cooperation in space activities
  • The United States recognizes the need for stability in the space environment

Is it possible to get transparency and international cooperation on classified missions, like the mysterious X-37B’s?  Or is this an intellectual disconnect we just have to live with because the U.S. government doesn’t want to reveal the X-37B’s mission?

No, misperceptions and mistrust are based in large part on a nation’s body of work and not just singular (or recurring) national security space events.  In this regard, the U.S.’s body of work (versus, let’s say…China) regarding transparency is in excellent shape.

OK, you say, but what about “space stability”?  Is it all in the eye of the beholder?

Again, no.  These issues can be best reconciled by looking at the X-37B in a larger context.  Here are two of the five NSP principles (and one of the principles is an expansion of the first element above):

  • All nations have the right to explore and use space for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity, in accordance with international law. Consistent with this principle, “peaceful purposes” allows for space to be used for national and homeland security activities.
  • The United States considers the space systems of all nations to have the rights of passage through, and conduct of operations in, space without interference. Purposeful interference with space systems, including supporting infrastructure, will be considered an infringement of a nation’s rights.

Because using space for peaceful purposes supports national security and/or homeland defense needs, it’s likely the United States revealed as much on the X-37B’s mission as was prudent (without compromising its purpose).  NRO missions follow the same principles of revealing what can be revealed and remaining silent on the rest.  And since there is no evidence the X-37B would interfere with other space systems, it is presumed to support the second principle as well.

Finally, as a second X-37B is being readied for a launch that may happen as early as March 2011, it would seem reasonable to infer the administration thinks its capabilities support stability in the space environment.

Although some have viewed the X-37B as the modern equivalent of the Death Star, its capabilities are a bit more modest.  For example, its payload bay is about the size of a pickup truck bed and it’s limited to payloads weighing several hundred kilograms or less.  Payload size and capability are almost perfectly correlated.

So is the X-37B mysterious, clandestine, fascinating, and secretive?  Yes.  Is it destabilizing?  No.  Is the X-37B inconsistent with U.S. National Space Policy?  Absolutely not.


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