FYI: Space Shuttles Are Still Very Much A Thing
published during a waning crescent moon.
06/29/2016

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A Thing Of The Past?

Ever since NASA canceled its Space Shuttle program in 2011, Space Shuttle-style designs—reusable, winged space planes able to achieve orbit and land horizontally—seem to be a nostalgic remnant of a simpler time. Budget cuts and changing space priorities have created a push for cheaper, smaller designs like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or NASA’s Orion spacecraft, both of which NASA plans on using to transport astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station in lieu of a shuttle program.

And yes, it is true that NASA has clearly stated it won’t be developing another space shuttle. But that doesn’t mean the concept is a thing of the past. There are a number of groups around the world actively designing, testing, or using their own new space planes right now. Here are four notable examples:

India’s “Mini Space Shuttle”

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ISRO’s RLV-TD craft mounted atop its HS9 solid rocket booster ahead of its May 2016 launch. Credit: ISRO

Just this past May, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), launched a test vehicle called RLV-TD (Reusable Launch Vehicle – Technology Demonstration). Dubbed a “mini space shuttle” by the press, the craft looked like a much smaller NASA shuttle atop a thin rocket. Without a scale bar, you might be convinced that you are looking at some sort of Space Shuttle lollypop bought at a NASA gift store.

The RLV-TD was pretty much just an empty box—a 6.5 metre-long scale model. ISRO used the RLV-TD to test the basic technology to be used on a future 40 meter-long autonomous and reusable space plane able to deliver satellites and other cargo to space (as well as potentially astronauts). The goal for the final model, many years off, would be to make ISRO be a major international player in the launch game.

On May 23rd of this year, the RLV-TD was propelled 65 km in the air by a single stage rocket before it reentered the denser atmosphere. Along the way it survived high temperatures as the atmosphere slowed it down from a peak speed of five times the speed of sound. For this test, though, there was no runway, and it merely crashed into the Bay of Bengal after performing all of its tests (including going through the motions of landing on a runway).

European PRIDE

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Artist’s impression of ESA’s IXV craft in flight. Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency has been developing a reusable space plane as well. These efforts are housed in ESA’s Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator for Europe (PRIDE), a program with the goal of creating a space plane able to operate robotically in orbit, perform experiments, deploy and repair satellites, reenter, and glide to a landing.

The most recent launch related to this effort, which occurred in early 2015, was a craft called the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, or IXV. It was made specifically to test the design’s automatic reentry system to inform future ESA designs. The craft, whose entire body looked a bit like the nose of the NASA Space Shuttle with no wings, reached an altitude of 450 km—not quite enough to make it into orbit—before successfully reentering the atmosphere.

Though the technology demonstrated here may bear little resemblance to any future ESA space plane, this reentry technology is something Europe needs to move forward with other more ambitious projects. The next craft under development will be a similarly sized craft, but this one will likely have wings and the capability to land on a runway.

ESA’s launch of its IXV craft. Credit: ESA

China’s Ultra-Secret Shenlong Space Warplane

The possibility of a secret Chinese space shuttle provoked international attention when a photo posted on a Chinese website board appeared to show a small, rocket-like craft mounted below the wing of a Chinese bomber jet. Many people speculated that this was part of a military space program. Such a craft, which in this case is likely a smaller scale model, would be launched like a missile from the plane traveling at high speeds and altitudes. The rocket’s engine would then propel it, theoretically, into space.

Richard Fisher Jr., an analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center (a Washington think tank), argued then that the craft was likely an “air-launched space-launch vehicle …  for the purposes of testing technologies for a future reusable unmanned or manned space shuttle or other trans-atmospheric vehicle.”

For nearly a decade, that was pretty much the extent of our knowledge of the Shenlong program. Then, in January 2016, a Chinese official went on the record for the first time regarding the Shenlong program. Song Zhongping, an “official military commentator,” told a Hong-Kong based newspaper that the unmanned Shenlong is being designed as a space weapons launch platform that will also have surveillance and intelligence capabilities. This is, not surprisingly, something many other governments would love to know more about.

The X-37B: America’s answer to the Shenlong?

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An X-37B after landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base after its third mission ended in October 2014. Credit: Boeing

The United States Military also has a space program. Not only are they working on a space shuttle for military use, but it there is a test-version in orbit at this very moment. Before NASA abandoned the concept of a second generation Space Shuttle all together, they were heavily invested in a project called the Boeing X-37, a reusable, autonomous space plane with landing capabilities. After NASA’s priorities were reorganized in 2011, those plans were scrapped. But the project never actually shut down, it just became part of a classified US Air Force project.

At approximately a quarter the size of the Space Shuttle, the X-37B holds the Guinness record for the world’s smallest orbital space plane. Even though information about the project is limited, we know that it is unmanned, can operate, re-enter, and land autonomously, and that it can be launched on top of an Atlas V rocket. Most of the speculation around the X-37 centers on whether or not the craft carries weapons, surveillance tools, or both.

After the most recent launch, a team of amateur astronomers was able to figure out the robotic shuttle’s orbit. In six sightings, the New York Times reported in 2015, watchers deduced that its orbit takes it between 40 degrees north and south latitude, and that it passes over the same place on Earth every four days (you can even see where it is right now). This, according to one of the astronomers on the team, this is a “common feature of U.S. imaging reconnaissance satellites.”

In terms of weapons, the Pentagon flatly denies that possibility. Gary Payton, the under secretary of the Air Force for space programs, said that the X-37B program “supports technology risk reduction, experimentation, and operational concept development,” but has “no offensive capabilities.” So there’s that.

An unmanned X-37B spacecraft touching down at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in June 2012. Credit: Space.com

The Future

So in many ways, the dream of futuristic space shuttles is alive, exciting, and terrifying. New civilian space programs are emerging as players in the reusable spaceship game—and perhaps one day some of these programs will get into the astronaut transportation business—a possibility in the back of the minds of the ESA at least.

While we wait for that, though, there is already a top secret space shuttle in orbit right now and China seems to be going all-in on this space warplane concept. If the militaries of two superpowers are still interested in reusable space planes, they can’t be a thing of the past!