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High Frontier
April 25, 2010 10:49 AM   Subscribe

“In all honesty, we don’t know when it’s coming back for sure” - The US Air Force's first launch of the X-37b reusable space vehicle has provoked much speculation, with some even wondering if the Pentagon is reviving Nazi space-bomber plans. But was the launch of spaceplane an attempt to mask the launch of another secret weapon?
posted by Artw (55 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Silbervogel, and X-20 Dyna-Soar? Who's casting this picture, Stephen Hawking?

See also: Foo Fighters (not the band), Hitler's Stealth Fighter, Nazi UFO's, etc.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:06 AM on April 25, 2010


I think it is a pretty badass looking space plane, even with the retro-shuttle vibe. It's gonna fuel a ton of conspiracy theories, since it is a classified military project that actually does raise some serious militarization of space issues.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:07 AM on April 25, 2010


Who ever came up with the name for the Dyno Soar and got it to stick must have been incredibly pleased with their own cleverness or completely oblivious to what they'd just done - I can't see much of a middleground.
posted by Artw at 11:11 AM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Calm down, everybody. This is just preparation for when the Chinese mount anti-satellite cannons on Tiangong 3 that will threaten secret US operations, leading to war in space around 2020 or so. Nothing to worry about.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:19 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Salyut 3/OPS-2 conducted a successful test firing on a target satellite remotely with the station unmanned due to concerns over excessive vibration and noise.

Unusually wussy for the Russians.
posted by Artw at 11:21 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Honestly, I love this thing. I mean, we get to diddle around in space without sending up our best and brightest humans in a tube that is all too likely to explode. I know that it's important to expand the human experience and all that, but for now, isn't it enough to use our technology to safely learn about space? Is NASA intending to develop a similar reusable unmanned shuttle?
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:21 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


DARPA Falcon Project
They lost contact nine minutes after launch.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 11:22 AM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe it will pull of of these when it comes back. Top 10 Low Pass Flybys.
posted by netbros at 11:50 AM on April 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


"Salyut 3/OPS-2 conducted a successful test firing on a target satellite remotely with the station unmanned due to concerns over excessive vibration and noise."

Unusually wussy for the Russians.


Meh. That entire wikipedia article is a classic kgb-livejournal misinformation exercise:
"OPS-4 was grounded when the Almaz manned program was cancelled."

Everyone knows those birds are still up there, full of cranky bearded hardliners.
A: "Comrade, are you serious about nuking them if they don't send up another supply boat?"
B: "Nyet, I just had a little bit too much of the hydroponics group's latest project. Zaraysk gold, have you tried it? It's very mellow."
A: "Comrade, I'm a little worried about our supply chain."
B: "What's to worry about? We've got our smokeables. And have you tried this stuff Dmitry's been passing around? We may have a fully closed cycle up here."
A: "Is this vodka or urine?"
B: "Wellllll...."
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:57 AM on April 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


Honestly, I love this thing. I mean, we get to diddle around in space without sending up our best and brightest humans in a tube that is all too likely to explode. I know that it's important to expand the human experience and all that, but for now, isn't it enough to use our technology to safely learn about space? Is NASA intending to develop a similar reusable unmanned shuttle?

Every time I hear an argument like this, I wonder what other activities we humans can use technology to stop doing. Surely we can stop going out onto the water in small boats; there's tons of pictures and descriptions of what that looks like and it would stop so many people from drowning. And people get killed when they get lost hiking in national parks, surely we can force people to stay at home and watch documentaries on television or something. And driving is so dangerous, there must be some way to stop people from doing that.

There's more to life than minimizing risk, I think.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:08 PM on April 25, 2010 [18 favorites]


I mean, we get to diddle around in space without sending up our best and brightest humans in a tube that is all too likely to explode.

That's your uncle talking.
posted by chambers at 12:08 PM on April 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


LastOfHisKind, if I could send a robotic probe to go grocery shopping for me instead of driving, I would love that. Even if I had to still drive by 3G or whatever.
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:20 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Netbros, thanks for that link. That was extremely awesome.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:47 PM on April 25, 2010


Meh, human space travel is pretty stupid. Sure, it made sense in the 80s when the shuttle was being built, but computer technology is a lot better these days (and keep in mind, these devices lag by decades in terms of what's possible in terms of computer tech, this thing would have been designed in the '90s)

Think about how much easier it would be to do maintenance on the Hubble space telescope with something like this? (Or work on high-end spy satellites, which is where a lot of the technology for the Hubble came from)
posted by delmoi at 12:53 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Pretty sure this is the delivery vehicle for the nude bomb...
posted by Mister_A at 1:07 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Meh, human space travel is pretty stupid.

Sounds like someone never got to go to Space Camp like they wanted!

Really, though, if we stopped paying so damn much to kill brown people overseas we would have plenty of cash to send people and robots up and do all kinds of neat things with both.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:30 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm torn about this.

Spaceplane: Excellent.

Weaponization of Space: Not Excellent.*


*And yet... Spaceplane. Which is Excellent.
posted by darth_tedious at 3:04 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


But can it use its space laser to pop a whole house full of popcorn from space while Tears for Fears music plays in the background? I think that's what we'd all really like to know.
posted by Asparagirl at 3:16 PM on April 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


While I'm all for trying to stop the seemingly inevitable weaponization of space, it's not like the military didn't use the Space Shuttle to put OMGLAZORS! in orbit before. I seem to recall a number of "classified" shuttle missions, and of course, the military was already using rockets to launch stuff up there concurrent with the shuttle program.

Also, AWESOME SPACE PLANE!!!
posted by KingEdRa at 3:18 PM on April 25, 2010


I had been considering counterpoints when faced with opposition t manned space flight, and had thought of this one.

Hypothesis: Manned space flight on a large scale, including space tourism, could create a paradigm shift that would create a more environmentally conscious society .

Convincing people to use their resources wisely is difficult when they have known abundant air, water and the relative ease to migrate to a better location. All the PSAs and campaigns in the the world would not be as effective as putting someone in a place where being wise about their resources is the difference between life and death.

If one is put into an environment where every resource for survival is precious, like air, water, CO2 levels, food, maintaining a balanced environment, etc, there will be a slow, growing appreciation for the resources we waste and mishandle when we return.

As time progresses, a larger and larger amount of people would have this experience and increase the change of behaviors in populations.

The Great Depression changed how the average family treated money and the goods it bought. Thriftiness and making things last as long as possible was a learned behavior that stayed around long after the depression was over for those people. The dustbowl changed how Americans maintained their farmlands. Droughts and famines have changed the behaiviors of entire populations.

Manned spaceflight on a grand scale would keep that learned behavior freshly reminded over generations, and not have it fade when the next generation that does not grow up with the same conditions, as with the Great Depression, for example.

Besides, aside for the survival of states, cultures, and civilizations, with will grow, flourish and die countless times over the eons, in the next several hundreds/thousands of years the survival of the human race and life that originated on Earth, the only life we know that exists, will not have a chance in the long run if we don't get some of it off this rock that could be snuffed out in an instant with a huge asteroid, for example, leaving nothing but microbes hundreds of feet below the planet's crust.

My intent is not to fear-monger to get people to space, it's just that having space colonies is the most logical strategy to ensure survival of any and all life on Earth.

Save the planet? Eventually it will die on it's own, eaten by the sun or fried by a collision with another object. We just have the unique opportunity to not have a shared fate.
posted by chambers at 3:34 PM on April 25, 2010


> I think that's what we'd all really like to know.

That's information is classified.
posted by darth_tedious at 3:35 PM on April 25, 2010


Hyperfast missile to hit anywhere in an hour
posted by Artw at 3:51 PM on April 25, 2010


Spaceplane: Excellent.

Weaponization of Space: Not Excellent.*


but these too things have gone hand in hand since the Apollo/ICBM...
posted by ennui.bz at 4:04 PM on April 25, 2010


Bit earlier than that, I think you'll find.
posted by Artw at 4:06 PM on April 25, 2010


If we don't weaponize space, THEY will. HAMBURGER?
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:44 PM on April 25, 2010


Of course it's a new Nazi weapon. The cold war was poisonous... in a rush to one-up the Soviets, we copied the Germans, but we didn't learn from them. A thousand Shermans were cheaper than one King Tiger. A hundred B17's were more effective than one Me-262, and half the cost. The Nazi's had heroic, fancy uniforms. US Officers wore uniforms that were basically olive-drab business suits, enlisted men wore olive drab workman's clothing tucked into workman's boots. We fought the war on our terms, and were damn successful.

Today, look around the US Military's arsenal. The assault rifle is a copy of a Nazi design, and the battle rifle, which won the war, was scrapped as obsolete. American armor is over sized and over priced, just like the the Panzers, and American fighters and bombers are fragile high-tech marvels that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, just like the Luftwaffe. (The A-10, the most "American" design in modern battle, was discontinued, despite being the most effective ground-attack fighter in aviation history. Not enough profit margin in it, I suppose.) Instead of the Jeep, we have over-weight, stupid costly Hummers as the backbone of our mechanized infantry. So much waste, so much extravagance, so much just useless strutting and showing off. No wonder we're getting creamed by amateurs with bombs built in the basement. We forgot that intelligence, counterintelligence and practical, effective logistics are what win wars, not shiny toys.

So, yeah, I can believe the Military is chasing after another Nazi super-weapon pipe dream. It's going to be fabulously expensive, and of no use against a warlord with a cheap North Korean copy of a Russian anti-tank RPG, hidden in the back of a pickup truck. But, gosh, it looks pretty.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:58 PM on April 25, 2010 [13 favorites]


From Artw's link above:

General Yuri Baluyevsky, a deputy secretary of the Russian National Security Council, complained that US concessions at nuclear arms reduction talks were not because of America’s love of peace, but because “they can kill you using conventional high-precision weapons”.
posted by jason's_planet at 5:06 PM on April 25, 2010


Who needs nukes when you can just use the Rod from God.

Sometimes you just need a big stick. The stick, in this instance, is just a rod of tungsten. The size of a telephone pole.
posted by chambers at 5:12 PM on April 25, 2010


A hundred B17's were more effective than one Me-262, and half the cost.

Hmm. Not to dimish the degree to which the germans where fond of overly complicated, impressive but impractical technologies, I don't really think the Me 262 was one of them. The thing could be built in the middle of a forest., and was incredibly effective against allied planes. If it had come aong a bit earlier, and if Hitler hadn't kept interfering in stupid ways like trying to make it a bomber and trying to make it a nightfighter, then it could have had a real impact on the war.
posted by Artw at 5:18 PM on April 25, 2010


the X-37b reusable space vehicle modulator
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:24 PM on April 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


I've always wanted to hear someone describe the organization that invented of the Internet as: the US military asylum for mad scientists, who see further into the future of warfare by standing on the shoulders of giants - if necessary, immense robot colossi or genetically engineered titanoid abominations of their own manufacture.

It kind of makes all that porn & kitten videos seem less important, doesn't it?
posted by Hoenikker at 5:40 PM on April 25, 2010


Also if the Sturmgewehr is good enough to base the AK-47 on it's good enough for you to copy.
posted by Artw at 5:42 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Every time I hear an argument like this, I wonder what other activities we humans can use technology to stop doing. Surely we can stop going out onto the water in small boats; there's tons of pictures and descriptions of what that looks like and it would stop so many people from drowning. And people get killed when they get lost hiking in national parks, surely we can force people to stay at home and watch documentaries on television or something. And driving is so dangerous, there must be some way to stop people from doing that.

Sending humans into space is a waste of resources. You can learn exponentially more about whatever just by replacing costly humans with cheap machines.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:10 PM on April 25, 2010


Also if the Sturmgewehr is good enough to base the AK-47 on it's good enough for you to copy.

The Nazi G-43 was based on the Russian SVT-40, and they made as many of those as they did of the Sturmgewehr 44 (around 400,000 each.) So, while the Soviets were all proud of their knock-off German design after the war, the Germans were making as many Russian battle rifle knock-offs as they could during the war.

The AK-47 is not a good weapon. It's just better (and cheaper) than the Stoner AR-15 and its descendants. (The KelTec Su-16 is really the rifle the US military should have developed at the start, and should be moving to now. They won't, because the Nazi guns look meaner and cost more.)

The superiority of Nazi weapons were mostly fairy tales - the US and the Soviets didn't give their own design philosophies and engineering enough credit post-war. As a matter of fact, the Nazi's issued captured and modified PPSh-41's as the MP41 - it was the second-most issued submachinegun the Germans used during the war, admired for its reliability and simple maintenance.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:11 PM on April 25, 2010


Yeah, the tone of that Times story is something.

(1) US launches new military shuttle.
(2) Some fear this may lead to the militarization of space someday. Imagine!

(3) Oh-by-the-way they also put a massive new superweapon into space yesterday too.
posted by rokusan at 7:30 PM on April 25, 2010


There's also the MG-42...

And lets face it, they figured out tanks before anyone else. Everyone else started the war with useless guns and paper armour and no idea what to do with them, whereas the germans were paying attention to Fuller, had the tactics down, and had better armour and guns till the end of the war. The whole supply line and manufacturing deal may have been another issue, but the actual tanks they had down.
posted by Artw at 7:57 PM on April 25, 2010


Foreign Policy has an interesting article on the "Global Strike" program. (SPOILER: They think it's dumb.)
The United States is currently fighting two wars against enemies with no air defenses, planes, or ships. The terrorists and insurgents on the other side are effectively handled by ground forces, tactical air forces, and, increasingly, drones. Drones are already deployed, and they can track and kill fleeting targets. Why would the U.S. military need to launch a missile from California to deliver a bomb to a cave in Afghanistan, when it already has drones on bases, ready to drop a bomb within minutes?

For the global strike scheme to work, it would require unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to track fleeting targets and relay information to the space plane. Without the intelligence the military would not know what to shoot the missile at, nor be able to hit it. But if the drones are already on the target, who needs an ICBM? If the Pentagon needs more ordnance on targets, it can further develop and deploy the longer-range UAVs it already has, such as the Global Hawk.
Seems like a pretty good argument to me. The Global Strike concept definitely has an edge in terms of "awesome factor," but it seems suspiciously like a defense-contractor bailout when there are more (military- and cost-) effective systems in need of funding.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:23 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


While you raise a good point, Kadin, the only reason that the US has those drones and infantry in place is because of lot of countries (barely) tolerate American military presence within their borders.

From a hegemonic perspective, the Global Strike program could be an efficient long-term strategy that counteracts the ability of the United States to project conventional military power due to increasing economic and geopolitical limitations. Who needs military bases in 60 countries when you have grabbed the strategic high ground of space and have very powerful, smart, precision-guided weapons in orbit coupled with observational platforms that can be launched from international waters?
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:32 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


That's true. The FP critique could itself probably be vulnerable to charges that it's short-sighted, and fails to look beyond the current conflict in Afghanistan to future hypothetical situations.

I think the best response to that is twofold: one, it's difficult to envision a situation where the U.S. has actionable intelligence that's solid enough to warrant using a system like Global Strike, but doesn't have any ability to react, or couldn't have some ability to react that's cheaper than Global Strike (by, say, equipping long-duration drones — the kind that would give us this hypothetical actionable intelligence, say on Bin Laden's favorite tea spot — with weapons); two, I'm not sure that we have a good track record when we try to plan for future conflicts, and this should really give us pause given the current rate of technological and geopolitical change.

Even from a "hegmonic" perspective, I think U.S. power would be better preserved putting the same resources into more flexible, lower cost-per-shot weapon systems. Being able to call down the Hammer of God might seem cool, but if you can only afford (in terms of actual and political capital) to fire it very occasionally, it might not have that much effect on enemy behavior, particularly if they're a multi-celled organization with few key individuals.

Of course, I'm not sure that "drones" are the right answer — the real right answer is a lot harder than just picking some other system. Drones strike me as a disruptive, potentially advantageous, and underutilized technology right now, but in a few years they might all be obsolete for some reason. The real answer isn't to imagine that there's some perfect weapon system out there; that's a dangerous attitude in itself. What the U.S. needs is the ability to whip up, scale up, and deploy new systems on very short notice. The real enemy isn't living in a cave in Afghanistan, the real enemy, in terms of harming U.S. relevance, is within.

This isn't a novel thought by any means, of course — DARPA was created to address just these concerns (among other things) and has occasionally done an admirable job* of working on short notice. But that needs to be the norm, not the exception, and I don't think we can do that without a total overhaul of the sclerotic gravy train that is modern procurement.

* The "Budd Light," a simple flashing IR LED powered by a 9V battery and intended to prevent friendly-fire incidents during Iraq I, is generally cited as an example of something they did right, although it still took too long to field to make much of a difference during the war. Still it was better than the normal RFP cycle, which is best measured on geologic timescales.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:33 PM on April 25, 2010


I used to dance under the name "Rod from God."
posted by five fresh fish at 11:44 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


What is the threat that requires such overwrought weaponry? The US is in no danger of being out-gunned. No other nation has a fraction of your existing firepower. American hegemony us not under the kind of threat that bigass weapons can counter.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:48 PM on April 25, 2010


Sending humans into space is a waste of resources. You can learn exponentially more about whatever just by replacing costly humans with cheap machines.

Arguably sending anything into space except for communication/weather satellites is a waste of resources. Did the Hubble Space Telescope feed anyone in Africa? How about the Mars Rovers?

I think the thing to do would be to completely defund NASA altogether.
posted by dibblda at 12:50 AM on April 26, 2010


Hubble has kept a lot of scientists fed, including some in Africa.
posted by ryanrs at 2:10 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


If NASA were smart, they'd market the Mars rovers as cute little helper robots. I mean, they're already adorable! It's like if Wall-E exploded and got put back together as a terrier.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:39 AM on April 26, 2010


Everyone else started the war with useless guns and paper armour and no idea what to do with them, whereas the germans were paying attention to Fuller, had the tactics down, and had better armour and guns till the end of the war.

The French SOMUA S35 was better than anything the Germans had at the outbreak of the war. What the Germans innovated was combined-arms maneuver - Blitzkreig - and they lifted that from interwar British and US military theorists.

At the end of the war, the Soviet T-34 and the US Hellcat were lightyears more effective than German armor, and Patton, one of the original innovators of armored tactics and mobile combined-arms offensives in the first World War, proved to have mastered them better than the Germans.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:23 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hubble has kept a lot of scientists fed, including some in Africa.

Those scientists could be paid to work on earth bound problems.
posted by dibblda at 9:31 AM on April 26, 2010


American armor is over sized and over priced

This is kind of a bogus complaint. American armor was designed for use in a very specific time and place - fighting Warsaw Pact MBTs at the German/Czech border. For that specific purpose, it's very well designed. Long-range mobility, light weight, and narrow supply chains aren't significant factors in that environment.

And they're really fun to drive!
posted by me & my monkey at 10:09 AM on April 26, 2010


The SOMUA S35? They've got one of those at Bovington. It's a joke tank - it has a fucking pea shooter on top. It's less transparently stupid than the British interwar tanks but that's not saying much. Put it up against a Mk 4 and it's a pile of scrap.

T-34 versus Tiger is a far more intersting question. x has it in that it's a question of what it's designed for - the Tiger is designed to be an indestructable Nazi supertank, the T-34 is designed to be solid but quick to build and simple - and in the end it won out because it turned out being able to manufaction many more tanks and not having the maintenance issues of the Tiger beats having an indestructible supertank.
posted by Artw at 10:29 AM on April 26, 2010


(The story of the Me262 and the Tiger verus the T-34 both make great allegories for software development, if you wnat to build up a reputation for being a slighly scary lunatic with your co-workers)
posted by Artw at 10:34 AM on April 26, 2010


The S35 was absolutely more than a match for the MkIII - that pogun was a 45mm canon, compared to the 37mm gun on the MkIII of the time, and up against the MkIV was the Char B1. The B1 ate them for lunch.

From the wiki page:

In direct meetings with German tanks the Char B1 usually had the better of it, sometimes spectacularly so as when on 16 May a single tank, Eure, frontally attacked and destroyed thirteen German tanks lying in ambush in Stonne, all of them Panzerkampfwagen IIIs and Panzerkampfwagen IVs, in the course of a few minutes. The tank safely returned despite being hit 140 times. Similarly, in his book Panzer Leader, Heinz Guderian relates the following incident, which took place during a tank battle south of Juniville: "While the tank battle was in progress, I attempted, in vain, to destroy a Char B with a captured 47-mm anti-tank gun; all the shells I fired at it simply bounced harmlessly off its thick armor. Our 37-mm and 20-mm guns were equally ineffective against this adversary. As a result, we inevitably suffered sadly heavy casualties".

The French had badder beasties in the pipeline, too, the Char G1 and FMC F1... but the French order of battle was rooted in the trenches of WWI, and in the end, they had too many light tanks, and not enough medium or heavy tanks for effective combined-arms tactics.

The only real knock against French armor of the time was that the commander was also supposed to be the gunner, hence the "popgun" appearance due to the small cupola, and that the B1 was too thirsty and underpowered for a proper offensive role.

I'm gonna hold my ground on this... the Nazis did not have overwhelming technical superiority. They had planning, preparation, and superior strategic and tactical doctrine. (Until they ran face-first into Zhukov and Monty.)

Fetishizing Nazi superweapons is fun science fiction, but poor military history.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:30 PM on April 26, 2010


Wha-? The guns in the bloody hull. And it's essentially immobile. That things not a tank, it's a gun emplacement.
posted by Artw at 1:29 PM on April 26, 2010


Rocket Racing League Unveils New Flying Hot Rod
posted by Artw at 4:29 PM on April 27, 2010


US hypersonic glider flunks first test flight
posted by homunculus at 9:39 AM on April 28, 2010


Getting Ready for Tomorrow's Space Wars
posted by Artw at 9:42 AM on May 8, 2010


A team of amateur sky watchers has pierced the veil of secrecy surrounding the debut flight of the nation’s first robotic spaceplane, finding clues that suggest the military craft is engaged in the development of spy satellites rather than space weapons, which some experts have suspected but the Pentagon strongly denies.
posted by homunculus at 8:57 AM on May 23, 2010


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