SpaceX Successfully Launches Air Force's Secret X-37B Spy Plane Before Destructive Hurricane Irma Strikes
This marks the first time that SpaceX was granted the opportunity to use its Falcon 9 to launch the X-37B, and it shows that the Air Force has confidence in the rocket's reliability rating. The X-37B's four previous missions began with it being thrust into orbit atop an Atlas V booster. Given the top-secret nature of the X-37B's [spying] mission, there's little that we know about its orbit or what it could possibly be carrying aboard. We also don't know how long the X-37B will stay in orbit, although its last mission was nearly two years in length.
The X-37B, which looks somewhat like a miniature version of the retired Space Shuttle, has a wingspan of just under 15 feet and weighs around 11,000 pounds. It is also reusable, like the Space Shuttle, which helps to keep costs down.
“The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program,” said Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community.”
We should also mention that the commentators during this particular broadcast of the launch were definitely -- in nice terms -- more "buttoned down" in the way they discussed what was taking place. There wasn't the usual tag team of male and female cohosts with their "morning show" style banter, and no camera shots of the commentators (this is actually one of the more enjoyable aspects of typical SpaceX launches). One thing that wasn't missing, however, was the background applause of SpaceX employees watching the launch, particularly during the stage 1 separation and when the Falcon 9 boost stage successfully landed back at Cape Canaveral.
Yes, you read that correctly; this marked SpaceX's 16th overall successful landing of the Falcon 9 (and the seventh on terra firma).
SpaceX's successful launch took place as the massively destructive Hurricane Irma is barreling down towards the Florida coast. The southern tip of Florida will really begin to feel the effects of Irma, which is a currently a category 5 storm, this weekend.
Images courtesy U.S. Air Force