Unmanned Air Force space plane lands in Calif.

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“I believe one of the reasons that the mission is still around is institutional inertia,” he said.

The arc of the X-37 program spans back to 1999 and has changed hands several times. Originally a NASA project, the space agency in 2004 transferred it to the Pentagon’s research and development arm, DARPA, and then to the secretive Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into development, but the current total spent remains a secret.

Built by Boeing Government Space Systems, a unit of the company’s satellite manufacturing area, the 11,000-pound space plane stands 9 1/2 feet tall and is just over 29 feet long, with a wingspan of less than 15 feet. It possesses two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabilizer. Once in orbit, it has solar panels that unfurl to charge batteries for electrical power.

McDowell of the Jonathan’s Space Report sees a downside. He noted it’ll be tough for the Air Force to send up such planes on short notice if it has to rely on the Atlas V rocket, which requires lengthy preparations.

“The requirement to go on Atlas V is a problem; they may need to look at a new launch vehicle that would be ready to go more quickly,” he said.

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Online:

X-37B fact sheet: http://www.af.mil/information/factsheets/factsheet.asp?fsID16639

Vandenberg AFB: http://www.vandenberg.af.mil

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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