X-37B spaceplane spying on Chinese space station?
January 5, 2012 7:56 AM   Subscribe

In March last year, the unmanned X-37B US military spaceplane launched from Cape Canaveral on mission USA-226, to "demonstrate various experiments", sensors and technology. Its original 270 day mission was extended in November "as circumstances allow" for "additional experimentation opportunities", but a dedicated group of optical tracking specialists in the US and Europe believe that the X-37B is in fact spying on the Chinese space station Tiangong-1.

This is according to a report to be published this weekend in the British Interplanetary Society's magazine Spaceflight. Some people disagree, however.

Previously on Mefi, on the X-37B's ability to change its orbit, track, and altitude.
posted by adrianhon (59 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is it just me, or does the photo on the X-37B's wikipedia page kind of look like an inverted Dalek?
posted by schmod at 8:16 AM on January 5, 2012


It must have taken five editors to get this right:
Part of the problem is that China draws little distinction between its civilian and military programmes, unlike in other parts of the world[...] In the US, also, that distinction is pretty clear with Nasa being charged with the majority of civilian projects.
Implying that China is a dangerous exception for combining military and civilian space efforts RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF A STORY ABOUT COMBINED U.S. MILITARY/CIVILIAN SPACE EFFORTS.
posted by fartron at 8:25 AM on January 5, 2012 [16 favorites]


We're just casing the joint. Waiting for the new owners to move in.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:29 AM on January 5, 2012


I believe that we often send secret cameras etc to test aboard what otherwise seem "pure science" flights into space. That hidden work masks the number etc of things we do in the increasingly growing attempt to gain control in space.
posted by Postroad at 8:30 AM on January 5, 2012


Except that there's no indication that the X-37B is a science or civilian space flight. Launched by the US Air Force, not NASA.
posted by meowzilla at 8:35 AM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Implying that China is a dangerous exception for combining military and civilian space efforts RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF A STORY ABOUT COMBINED U.S. MILITARY/CIVILIAN SPACE EFFORTS.

Not to mention that is routinely acknowledged that the design of the space shuttle was dictated by military considerations...
posted by srboisvert at 8:37 AM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


An 11,000 lb unpowered remote controlled glider? I wonder how easy it is to land. Looking at it, I bet it drops like a rock after re-entry.

I'm not sure about a dalek, but I can definitely see an electrical outlet-style 'face' on the bottom stage, which then makes the bottom fins look like flippers to me.
posted by carter at 8:40 AM on January 5, 2012


The X-37B really isn't a "combined military/civilian effort," at least not on an ongoing basis. It started off as a civilian effort, but when NASA couldn't pay for the continued development, DARPA took it over. Previously the Air Force had chipped in some money, but not very much compared to NASA's contribution.

So it started out as a civilian project, and became a military one when it was likely to get scrapped otherwise.

Now there seems to be some interest by NASA in getting back involved, or purchasing a scaled-up version from Boeing (who actually manufactures the thing) that's capable of transporting astronauts. But I'm not sure that's really suggestive of any real ongoing participation.

The US military and civilian space programs are run by different agencies, funded differently, typically launch out of different facilities, use different equipment, etc. I assume that there has to be some personnel crossover, especially with the end of the Shuttle program at NASA leaving a lot of people unemployed, but on paper they are at least at arm's length. That's a bit different from the Chinese program as I understand it (although historically, the US space program had a lot more military involvement before NASA was created, so comparing them to the US in 2012 isn't really fair).
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:41 AM on January 5, 2012


Looking at it, I bet it drops like a rock after re-entry.

Yes and no. It's a lifting body.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:43 AM on January 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I feel like I've posted this here recently, but,

"The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots."
posted by codacorolla at 8:48 AM on January 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


So the argument against it being a combined effort is that they stopped funding the civilian wing of the space program, and moved this project to a Pentagon balance sheet?

The Atlas V they used to put it up may have had an Air Force logo, and the launch pad was down the road from the one they used to put up Atlantis, but it's silly to pretend that Kennedy and Canaveral are distinct when they share operators and functions and it's silly to pretend that this machine and this mission are not a product of the long and intimate relationship between the Pentagon and NASA.
posted by fartron at 9:05 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it is more likely that they are both spying on similar places around the world. I mean there are only a few places that are really really interesting to look at. The X37-B doesn't really seem that mysterious. Its just spy satellite. You launch it, you can move it around, and when you need to upgrade the image sensors or refuel you bring it back down.
posted by humanfont at 9:09 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the US, also, that distinction is pretty clear with Nasa being charged with the majority of civilian projects.

O rly?
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:12 AM on January 5, 2012


I'd just like to point out that here in America, our space vehicles are built by innocent, private sector, civilian contractors like Lockheed and General Dynamics.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:18 AM on January 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


From T. D. Strange's link:

“NRO [National Reconnaissance Office] requirements drove the shuttle design,” says Parker Temple, a historian who served on the policy staff of the secretary of the Air Force and later with the NRO’s office within the Central Intelligence Agency.

Heh.
posted by carter at 9:19 AM on January 5, 2012


Implying that China is a dangerous exception for combining military and civilian space efforts RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF A STORY ABOUT COMBINED U.S. MILITARY/CIVILIAN SPACE EFFORTS.

Heh. Seriously. There have been very few US space efforts that didn't have a military component to them. If any.

NASA was originally formed from NACA with the primary goal of "winning" the space race against the USSR. Despite the loose charter defining NASA's purpose as "The peaceful exploration of space" it was originally (technically) all about ICBM development. Project Mercury? Gemini? Apollo? It was actually about space supremacy and developing reliable ICBMs.

Do you think Skylab was the USA's first manned space station? Nope. That was the mysterious Manned Orbiting Laboratory from the US Air Force, predating Skylab by about 10 years, which was publicly described as testing humans in long duration space flight, but in secret it was designated KH-10, part of the Key Hole system of orbital reconnaissance satellites. It was a manned, human operated film camera - and one hell of a huge camera at that.

Despite the "official" public record that MOL never officially or successfully flew as a manned reconnaissance satellite, there's a lot of unofficial evidence that it did indeed fly and operate as such.

A large quantity of shuttle missions were classified military payloads. The shuttle itself was redesigned for cross-country gliding and landing for military considerations. As an extension of the canceled Dyna-Soar X-20 space plane project, the SST was of strong interest to the USAF and DoD.

There have been dozens if not hundreds of purely military payloads that have been delivered from NASA's "civilian" facilities. That military-civilian cooperation has been going on since NASA was still NACA, technically speaking. Military/classified payloads have shared payload space with civilian/commercial payloads on both the Space Shuttle and on a variety of conventional rockets and boosters, some man-rated for civilian use, some not.

If you go look at certain archival videos of the Shuttle program, you can catch a glimpse of the mission planning board where the roadmap of Shuttle missions is laid out on a magnetic whiteboard with magnetic silhouettes of the shuttle and it's payload configuration or that mission, with little magnetic silhouettes of satellites and payload configurations in the payload bay. Something like a third to one half of the missions listed on that board simply had a large rectangular box in the payload bay labeled "DoD". The large box in the payload bays of the magnetic shuttle silhouettes is just a place holder so as not to even reveal the size or shape of the payloads.

The reaction of the US to Sputnik was pure military paranoia, too. The general population of the US was freaking the fuck out about Sputnik because it now meant the USSR could drop nuclear weapons on our heads, and it would take minutes instead of hours as compared to conventional long range strategic bombing from aircraft.

Which lead us, of course, to the space race, which is intrinsically tied to the Cold War. We wouldn't have landed on the moon without this military impetus.

Anyway, the militarization of space started long before Sputnik was even designed or thought up. The German V2 rockets were technically among the first sub-orbital rocket flights in space.

So, is the X-37B spying on China's space station? Probably. The whole point of the X-37B is to retain the military and on-orbit maneuvering capabilities of the Space Shuttle without the cost or risk of being man-rated, and without the need for messy civilian oversight or cooperation.
posted by loquacious at 9:25 AM on January 5, 2012 [25 favorites]


It's a not-secret that the Hubble Space Telescope was based around some requirements for the KH-11 satellites, and the SST was apparently designed to be able to lift and place the KH-11s.

The X-37B has the advantage of being able to more esaily change orbits, and be re-used.

X-37B Orbit Found from May 2010, via Arms Control Wonk
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:29 AM on January 5, 2012


Despite the "official" public record that MOL never officially or successfully flew as a manned reconnaissance satellite, there's a lot of unofficial evidence that it did indeed fly and operate as such.

Really? I've never heard of this. Could you elaborate, with a few links?

A large quantity of shuttle missions were classified military payloads.

Nope. Only 8 out of 135 shuttle missions were classified. That's not large.

The military and NASA no doubt share some resources, but considering that they have separate budgets and there's few locations in the US to optimally launch a rocket (i.e. near the equator), it's not surprising they both use facilities in Florida. The Air Force has separate facilities in Vadenburg, California.

Despite the loose charter defining NASA's purpose as "The peaceful exploration of space" it was originally (technically) all about ICBM development.

Yeah, but Projects Mercury and Gemini used derivatives of rockets that worked fine for bombs, but had to adjusted (man rated) for human space flight. Our soft flesh doesn't deal with vibrations well.

The Saturn V was, I think, the first US rocket designed from the ground up to be man rated.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:49 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The X-37B has the advantage of being able to more [easily] change orbits

I hear this claim being thrown around, but it doesn't make any sense to me. The only thing that limits the ability of a spacecraft to change its orbit is fuel. The design of the spacecraft itself doesn't matter one bit in this respect. And because the X-37 is meant to be safely deorbited, that requires even more fuel that it can't otherwise use for maneuvering. So I really don't understand the basis for this claim.

It's a not-secret that the Hubble Space Telescope was based around some requirements for the KH-11 satellites

This is almost certainly true, but I've never been able to find any clear-cut documentation that shows it.

“NRO [National Reconnaissance Office] requirements drove the shuttle design,”

The DoD had this crazy idea that they wanted to be able to launch the shuttle, immediately deploy a satellite, and then land on the very next orbit. Each shuttle orbit is about 90 minutes, so you can imagine how tight the time requirements are. But the inconvenient part about this is that while you're doing those two orbits, the Earth is rotating under you, so your launch and landing site is no longer in your orbital plane. (Easy to visualize, each time zone is about an hour, so in one shuttle orbit, the place where the shuttle crosses the equator moves west by about a time zone and a half.) This means that on reentry, you need to be able to get down into the atmosphere, then fly (aerodynamically) perpendicular to your orbital motion to get back to the landing site. Hence, the shuttle has wings.

If there had not been this requirement for a significant crossrange capability, it's unlikely the shuttle would have had the large wings it does now.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:50 AM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


You guys make spying sound like a bad thing. I like spy satellites. I want every major power on the Earth to have a pretty solid knowledge of who is doing what with nukes and ships and planes and what not pretty much round the clock.

Why? Because that prevents anyone from thinking that if they're just a little bit sneakier they can get a first strike in on the nation down the road. The Soviets would have never considered putting missiles in Cuba. The United States wouldn't have sent Colin Powell to the UN with and handful of satellite photos claiming to show a ballistic missile facility in Iraq without at least a dozen different ambassadors making a quick phone call and saying, "You dumbass, that's a felafel factory."

So on the nation-state level, I'm all for everyone knowing who is up to what (as opposed to a few bloated superpowers doling out dabs of information (or misinformation) as they see fit). It's got the pros of Mutual Assured Destruction only without the con of someone screwing up and wiping out humanity 30 minutes later. So if China has a tin can in orbit with a big camera pointed down making sure the US doesn't have a missile complex in my back yard with their name on it (really guys, that think in the SW corner is just a compost box) great. If the US has a shoe box in orbit making sure China's tin can just contains cameras taking pictures of my compost bin and not a bunch of warheads, great.

Now maybe you two should stop fapping around and get back to work on the global economy.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:08 AM on January 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


Good point, Kid C.

While we're at it, Human Rights Watch and a few like-minded charities should be able to buy spy time, and WikiLeaks should hack a few of their data streams.

But Anonymous should stay the fuck away. Don't want no unexpected packages landing in my back yard, after guidance systems get hacked.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:13 AM on January 5, 2012


The Atlas V they used to put it up may have had an Air Force logo, and the launch pad was down the road from the one they used to put up Atlantis, but it's silly to pretend that Kennedy and Canaveral are distinct when they share operators and functions and it's silly to pretend that this machine and this mission are not a product of the long and intimate relationship between the Pentagon and NASA.

Canaveral (which is Kennedy's old name) was originally a U.S. Air Force ballistic missile test facility. Basically what happened was that the Army lost the ballistic missile race, so Von Braun repurposed his work for manned flight (well, OK it was his personal purpose all the time).
posted by Ironmouth at 10:14 AM on January 5, 2012


It's a not-secret that the Hubble Space Telescope was based around some requirements for the KH-11 satellites, and the SST was apparently designed to be able to lift and place the KH-11s.

Uh, what? the SST? This is a physical impossibility. How in god's name would the SST launch a KH-11?
posted by Ironmouth at 10:18 AM on January 5, 2012


NASA was originally formed from NACA with the primary goal of "winning" the space race against the USSR. Despite the loose charter defining NASA's purpose as "The peaceful exploration of space" it was originally (technically) all about ICBM development. Project Mercury? Gemini? Apollo? It was actually about space supremacy and developing reliable ICBMs.

Uh, the two programs actually diverged pretty quickly. Its more like the civilian space program was designed to use the technology from the ICBMs for "soft" political purposes.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:20 AM on January 5, 2012


I believe this NOVA documentary touches on the issue and/or goes into it in more detail, but you're basically asking me to find you open links about a classified program that officially didn't exist beyond a cover story. These links don't exist.

There's been some random (if apocryphal) evidence that MOL actually flew as an operational platform, though. Mysterious and previously unidentified USAF-badged space-rated pressure suits were found at a disused bunker at Cape Canaveral a while ago, for example, and they were very curious because they didn't match any of the officially declassified programs. They were not, say, U2 or SR-71 pressure suits.

Considering the extremely obfuscated and classified history of the US military and USAF, I don't doubt that we don't have the full story about the MOL, and we may never have it.
posted by loquacious at 10:26 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Uh, the two programs actually diverged pretty quickly. Its more like the civilian space program was designed to use the technology from the ICBMs for "soft" political purposes.

Sure, but to claim that either the US Space Program or NASA itself as being purely civilian is utter hogwash. The vast majority of astronauts (especially mission commanders and pilots) have been current or former military officers.
posted by loquacious at 10:28 AM on January 5, 2012


A large quantity of shuttle missions were classified military payloads.

Nope. Only 8 out of 135 shuttle missions were classified. That's not large.
You are referring to missions that were entirely classified. There were many, many more missions where the shuttle carried a classified payload on an otherwise civilian mission.
posted by Lame_username at 10:29 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


You are referring to missions that were entirely classified. There were many, many more missions where the shuttle carried a classified payload on an otherwise civilian mission.

That may be. Do you have links to support that. I'm actually curious. I thought the Air Force and DOD decided not to focus on the Shuttle for classified payloads.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:35 AM on January 5, 2012


BB, as I recall, there were a lot more classified payloads before Challenger. During the launch hiatus the Pentagon realized it was cheaper to use conventional rockets and so usually did that.

The only reason the shuttle was designed to carry military payloads in the first place was that Congress didn't give NASA the budget necessary to build the thing. USAF agreed to pitch in on some of the development cost if it was made larger and its crossrange capability was increased.

Also, I believe USAF paid for the launch and landing facilities at Edwards as part of that deal. I think the Edwards launch capability was used once.
posted by wierdo at 10:43 AM on January 5, 2012


BB, as I recall, there were a lot more classified payloads before Challenger.

Yeah, my comment above yours should note that military seemed to lose interest in the shuttle AFTER the Challenger disaster.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:53 AM on January 5, 2012


Also, I believe USAF paid for the launch and landing facilities at Edwards as part of that deal. I think the Edwards launch capability was used once.

Edwards AFB doesn't have any space launch facilities, but it was the secondary landing site for the Shuttle, yeah. It was only used a few times for landing.

(The relatively nearby Vandenberg AFB does have launch facilities, but not for the Shuttle. They launch non-manrated Deltas and Titans at Vandenberg.)
posted by loquacious at 10:55 AM on January 5, 2012


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manned_Spaceflight_Engineer_Program#Shuttle_missions_with_classified_payloads
posted by jjwiseman at 10:56 AM on January 5, 2012


The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots.

Stanislaw Lem wrote about this, I think it was in his book "Peace On Earth." He hypothesizes that artificially intelligent weapons are useless on a complex battlefield. What is needed instead, is "artificial instinct," like insects. So the battlefield will be primarily in the top 1 inch of the soil and the air above it. Eventually the weapons would become microscopic, almost invisible.

Lem was particularly ingenious. He hypothesized microminiaturized flying insectoids made of plutonium that would disperse widely near the target like dust. Then on command, they would take flight and hurl themselves together into a sphere of critical mass. Boom!
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:58 AM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


(The relatively nearby Vandenberg AFB does have launch facilities, but not for the Shuttle. They launch non-manrated Deltas and Titans at Vandenberg.)

Shuttle launch facilities were created there, but were never used as such. The Challenger disaster led to the decision not to launch Shuttle flights from the west coast.
posted by ZeusHumms at 11:03 AM on January 5, 2012


From jjwiseman's link above: "While NASA offered to train the DoD astronauts the military wanted to control their training, as DoD astronauts who went to NASA rarely returned."

Ahahaha. That's a delicious little tidbit, and one of the reasons why I love NASA and space in general.

And it's why I think we should put politicians in orbit on a regular basis. Being able to see how small and fragile the Earth looks from space is a hell of a thing for one's ego and preconceived notions. Tends to radically change a persons perspective, it seems.
posted by loquacious at 11:03 AM on January 5, 2012


(The relatively nearby Vandenberg AFB does have launch facilities, but not for the Shuttle. They launch non-manrated Deltas and Titans at Vandenberg.)

As ZeusHumms says, Vandenberg AFB was intend for shuttle launches
posted by Z303 at 11:05 AM on January 5, 2012


BTW, I always use FAS.org, the Federation of American Scientists, for researching US military systems. Go there and do a search for "X-37" (and use the quotes, you need them) and you'll find some very interesting information. Like this PDF file, an excerpt from the journal International Security entitled Space Weapons: Crossing the U.S. Rubicon.

Here is the comprehensive FAS guide to US Space Launch Systems.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:07 AM on January 5, 2012


Shuttle launch facilities were created there, but were never used as such. The Challenger disaster led to the decision not to launch Shuttle flights from the west coast.

Woah, seriously? Links, please?

I've never, ever heard of this aspect of the Shuttle program. Launch pads 39A and 39B at Kennedy are fucking enormous to put it in scientific terms. As is the VAB. As far as I know Edwards has no facilities of that vertical size or stature. You'd be able to seem them from clear across the desert, and I've been all over that part of the desert and haven't seen anything even remotely resembling a launch pad capable of launching a shuttle.

I know they tested plenty of stuff out there and they have engine test stands and hangers and all sorts of plain old plane-related research stuff and tracking stations, but as far as I know you can't just strap a shuttle launch stack together on the ground, tilt it up and then launch it from any old pad.

Replicating even half of the Kennedy launch facilities at Edwards would be a huge, expensive project. Plus it would require a lot more fuel to get to orbit from the more northern position of Edwards, but that could have been designed into the Shuttle and boosters from the beginning, I suppose.

On preview: Oh, Vandenberg, not Edwards.
posted by loquacious at 11:12 AM on January 5, 2012


Plus it would require a lot more fuel to get to orbit from the more northern position of Edwards [Vandenberg], but that could have been designed into the Shuttle and boosters from the beginning, I suppose.

Polar-orbit launches all go from Vandenberg, because due south of VAFB, there's basically nothing until Antarctica. Due south or north of Florida there's a lot of land and people. The facilities were being built at the time of the Challenger disaster, but were never completed.

For any Shuttle missions which would require the proverbial Drop-a-satellite and return one orbit later, those were all operationally intended to be polar launches. Launch from VAFB, one or two orbits later, make an orbital plane change of 15 or 30 degrees and land at Edwards.
posted by chimaera at 11:20 AM on January 5, 2012


NB: VAFB Launch Complex 6.
posted by chimaera at 11:22 AM on January 5, 2012


As of Challenger there was apparently another 22 planned DoD payload flights. Some of them may have flown.
posted by jwells at 11:23 AM on January 5, 2012


And it's why I think we should put politicians in orbit on a regular basis. Being able to see how small and fragile the Earth looks from space is a hell of a thing for one's ego and preconceived notions.

Considering how some politicians react to "preserving life", I'm doubtful that having them view the fragile beauty of the Earth would make for better behavior.

Jake Garn and John Glenn, both Congresscritters, flew into space and returned to their respective chamber. I'm not familiar with their record, I wonder how their flights effected their voting.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:28 AM on January 5, 2012


But Anonymous should stay the fuck away. Don't want no unexpected packages landing in my back yard, after guidance systems get hacked.

At this years Chaos Computer Congress the CCC announced a Global Grid initiative to start putting hacker satellite networks into orbit. The intent is to provide a legislation free global Internet that can work for people when their government has shut their Internet access down.

It's getting surprisingly cheap to launch satellites now, you can get a tubesat for about $8000, and anybody can pick up some satellite communications from earth.
posted by formless at 11:33 AM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I hear this claim being thrown around, but it doesn't make any sense to me. The only thing that limits the ability of a spacecraft to change its orbit is fuel. The design of the spacecraft itself doesn't matter one bit in this respect. And because the X-37 is meant to be safely deorbited, that requires even more fuel that it can't otherwise use for maneuvering. So I really don't understand the basis for this claim.

Each time you change orbits on a traditional spy satellite you shorten the operational lifespan. You don't have much flexibility. On the other hand with the X37-B you can bring it down and send if back up. Also if the traditional satellite goes up and has a bad imaging sensor or a flaw in a mirror you are basically out of luck until the next bird goes up in a few years. With a unit cost of billions of dollars it probably makes good sense to have a reusable vehicle, especially if one expects launch costs to continue to decline.
posted by humanfont at 11:43 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Each time you change orbits on a traditional spy satellite you shorten the operational lifespan. ...

Right, but all these are arguments for why reusable vehicles have (allegedly) lower total lifecycle costs, and not really saying anything about the capabilities of the spacecraft itself.

I guess what I'm saying is that the argument should be that a reusable vehicle (potentially!) gets you more launches for the same amount of money. A reusable vehicle does not get around the basic physics of maneuvering in orbit.
posted by kiltedtaco at 12:00 PM on January 5, 2012


I think the Edwards launch capability was used once.

Yeah, uh, don't confuse Edwards and Vandenburg.

Vandenburg was to be the launch site for STS-62-A, which was next in the schedule (or nearly so) after Challenger.

Anyway, it's really unfortunate that this thread got derailed into a self-flagellating discussion of how much the US space programs overlap their military and civilian components. That's true, to an extent, but even the Russians are quite open with us now due to the ISS, while the Chinese are holding their cards much closer to their chest, and developing serious military capability for use in space. I think it's a valid concern, and in any case, it's natural that the US military would be concerned. This doesn't make anybody bad guys. But from a strategic standpoint, the US has long depended on its satellite and ICBM capabilities to give us a standoff margin, and any erosion of this is potentially destabiliziing, especially as we ratchet down our war-fighting reach. The PLA is operating aggressively right now to expand its Navy with a new aircraft carrier, and the satellite killer they tested would prove invaluable if deployed during a potential conflict.

What I'm saying is that while we have good trade relations with China, strategically they continue to be a concern, and the likelihood of some sort of repeat of the EP-3 incident is growing, not fading. China is feeling its oats now that it's soon to be, or already, the world's largest economy. For our purposes, its curious isolationism -- in long-term strategic sense -- has been a tremendous boon, but that era seems to be ending.

As Kid Charlemagne pointed out, spy satellites, or even the X-37B keeping an eye on the Chinese lab, are an important component of strategic stability and inter-military transparency and trust. I'm neither surprised nor displeased by this identification of the craft's mission.
posted by dhartung at 12:33 PM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Soviets would have never considered putting missiles in Cuba.

And maybe the US wouldn't have put missiles in Turkey, which is what prompted the Soviets putting missiles in Cuba in the first place.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:47 PM on January 5, 2012


And it's why I think we should put politicians in orbit on a regular basis. Being able to see how small and fragile the Earth looks from space is a hell of a thing for one's ego and preconceived notions. Tends to radically change a persons perspective, it seems.
I think the American people could get on board with funding this, provided we don't bring them back.
posted by delmoi at 12:55 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


For our purposes, its curious isolationism -- in long-term strategic sense -- has been a tremendous boon, but that era seems to be ending.
Why is it curious? China is thousands of years old, and it's never been interested in taking over the rest of the world.
posted by delmoi at 12:58 PM on January 5, 2012


That is demonstrably false, and also patronizing.
posted by rosswald at 2:14 PM on January 5, 2012


sorry, kiltedtaco, I'm used to talking about things as 'easy' in terms of dollars, and not in terms of physics. that was the sense I meant it in.

I was wrong about the SST and the KH-11s, they all went up on Titans and Deltas.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:30 PM on January 5, 2012


Uh, what? the SST? This is a physical impossibility. How in god's name would the SST launch a KH-11?

Presumably the STS** (Shuttle), not the SST*** (and presumably you know this and are just being obtuse).
posted by hattifattener at 3:24 PM on January 5, 2012


I think he was thinking Super Sonic Transport - the bloated version of the Concord that was going to be the new hotness any day now in the 70's but then went by the wayside for much the same reason that the Concord stopped flying in 2003. Given that there were people in the US who thought Concord was going to swallow all commercial air flight whole and leave the US aircraft industry in the dust, I suspect that a lot of data from the Valkyrie was available to both Lockheed and Boeing for their projects.

And yep, the big supersonic strategic bomber test bed USAF on the wings and NASA on the tail. Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:57 PM on January 5, 2012


I meant to say I know that's what I was thinking (and scratching my head about).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:58 PM on January 5, 2012


I meant STS, dammit.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:34 PM on January 5, 2012


I also typo'ed SST and meant STS/shuttle. A Concorde is pretty cool and all, but the Valkyrie is damn near suicidal and neither are lofting giant spy telescopes.
posted by loquacious at 12:47 AM on January 6, 2012


Now that you say it, it's obvious. At the time, I figured the must be some sort of X-1 / B-29 thing that I just wasn't putting together.

And come on, the Valkyrie is awesome on a stick! Let's not nitpick about things like air stability when what's really important is cool model rockets!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:14 AM on January 6, 2012


loquacious wrote: The relatively nearby Vandenberg AFB does have launch facilities, but not for the Shuttle.

Sorry, mixed up Edwards and Vandenberg in that bit.
posted by wierdo at 1:25 AM on January 6, 2012


Mike Mullane had a great anecdote in Riding Rockets about a medal ceremony following a classified shuttle mission. The medals were given, speeches by military brass, handshakes all around. The crew turned to leave the room and were told to hand the medals back since the medals THEMSELVES were classified.
posted by dr_dank at 10:44 AM on January 6, 2012


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