The X-37B reusable spaceplane is a “very flexible platform” and a “wonderful capability,” said Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, in his address Tuesday at AFA’s Air & Space Conference just outside of Washington, D.C. But X-37 also serves in a “niche” role and it’s still an open question whether the Air Force can afford to operate it over the long term, given other space priorities and tightening budgets, he told the audience. That’s “a question that we are going to be struggling with over the next few months,” said Shelton. “We think there is certain utility to it, but as you rack and stack all of the priorities that we’ve got, it remains to be seen” how X-37 will stack up. The Air Force presently has two X-37 vehicles. The first one returned to Earth last December after its maiden mission of more than 220 days. The second X-37B went into orbit in March and is still in space. Among its functions, the spaceplane allows the Air Force to take experimental payloads into space for on-orbit assessments and then bring them back to Earth for post-mission analysis.
NASA, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance are all preparing to launch their next-gen rockets from Florida’s Space Coast, two of them before the year is out. One is expected to liberate the U.S. launch enterprise from its reliance on Russian-made RD-180 engines, while all three rockets could eventually carry astronaut crews.