Video: Mystery US spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Well, it’s neither, but the Air Force isn’t exactly forthcoming on what exactly the X-37B OTV is, or what its mission will be when it becomes fully operational. In the same month that the Obama administration killed the Constellation program that would have eventually replaced the aging Space Shuttle systems at NASA, the best we can get from the Pentagon is that this is the next generation for Space Shuttle-like missions, only without any crew:

Some are concerned it may be used as a quick-response vehicle that could be sent very quickly with weapons to a danger spot, said Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation. The private group says it is “dedicated to maintaining the secure and sustainable use of space for the benefit of Earth and all its peoples.”

In a recent meeting with reporters, a top Air Force official rejected those types of suggestions. “I don’t know how this could be called weaponization of space,” said Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary for space programs. “Fundamentally, it’s an updated version of the space shuttle.”

Unlike the re-usable space shuttle, the X-37B is unmanned and much smaller. It is controlled from ground stations. It can stay in space for 270 days, but the Air Force won’t say how long it’s staying up this time or what exactly it will be doing other than testing out its high tech guidance and navigation. …

Military officials have said some of the things they hope will come from the X-37B. “The OTV has the potential to revolutionize how the Air Force operates in space by making space operations more aircraft like,” said David Hamilton Jr., the Air Force Rapid Capabilities office director.

The OTV “will provide a flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment where it will need to function,” the Air Force said in a news release.

This is an unusual segment, mainly for its inclusion of Victoria Samson. Other than spout a number of generic concerns about space weaponization, she adds nothing in terms of knowledge about the X-37B. Of course, not too many people have knowledge of the program, and those that do aren’t talking much. Under those conditions, though, a CNN could have covered the information that Samson provides, with perhaps less conspiratorial drama.

Do we have strategic interest in space? Of course. The Pentagon has good reason to explore the possibilities of unmanned and manned deployment, even as a test authority for later civilian exploration. Even if the X-37B is unmanned, it may well be testing systems that NASA will consider using in the next generation of manned spacecraft, and doing so with no risk to its personnel.

In the meantime, though, let’s indulge our Chicken Little conspiracy theorism in the absence of actual facts. Maybe it’s the Crossbow project come to life from Real Genius. In 1985, it was the epitome of evil, out-of-control CIA spook projects. In the era of asymmetrical warfare … not so much? Light up a cigar and get paranoid:

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