The X-37B and the Satellite Throwaway Paradigm

The X-37B reusable spaceplane has “great utility” and the Air Force intends to keep using it “for a while” because it is helping service officials understand the “re-usability aspect of space” for satellites, said Gen. John Hyten, Air Force Space Command boss, on Thursday at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. “That is the fundamental thing that X-37 is really getting at,” he said during a meeting with reporters. Pretty much everything the Air Force does in space is “a throwaway,” said Hyten. The Air Force launches a satellite and ”it is gone forever; you never can get it back,” he said. The same holds true for launch vehicles, he said. While companies like SpaceX are working to change that paradigm on the booster side, the X-37 is similarly “a way to change the equation on the satellite side,” said Hyten. “I can say we are learning a ton about the utility to do that … so we are going to continue” to use the X-37, he said. The Air Force has two X-37 vehicles in its fleet. One of them has been in space two times, while the other has been on orbit once thus far. The Air Force concluded the third X-37 mission in October after 674 days on orbit. Service officials have been mum on the details of each mission, other than to say they are using the spaceplanes as testbeds to validate technologies and mature concepts of operation. Hyten declined to say when the next X-37 mission is scheduled.