Is the top secret plane programme set to rise again?
Shortly after World War II, it became apparent that propellers were yesterday’s technology and that the future lay in the jet engine and the rocket. They opened up a world of speed that was unimaginable just a decade before but they also opened up a Pandora’s Box of new problems and perils. The ‘X’ craft programme was developed to solve these problems.
Each ‘X’ craft was a test bed for new technologies, which have led to safer air travel; faster and more manoeuvrable combat aircraft; and helped put man on the Moon.
Among their number are the legendary X-1 – the first to break the sound barrier; the incredible X-15 – the first winged craft to fly to space nearly three decades before SpaceShipOne; and the bizarre X-25 – a tiny folding helicopter designed for stranded pilots.
But after more than six decades at the cutting edge, the X programme was in trouble and, as budgets shrank, they were mothballed and cancelled one after another.
However, in recent months the X craft have been back in the news as two ‘cancelled’ projectshave risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes. The first was the X-37B. It started life as the X-37 and began as Nasa’s answer to a small, unmanned orbital space plane but the project was passed on to its secretive defence division – Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – and became classified.
On April 22, the craft (now the X-37B) was catapulted into the news when it was launched into orbit. Although tiny – a mere one-quarter of the size of the space shuttle – the project’s secrecy (the US air force imposed a media blackout) has led to speculation that it could be used to launch spy satellites, disable enemy satellites and could even be a potential weapon. The craft has been orbiting Earth every 90 minutes since April but it is due to land anytime from today to early next week.
Another X craft phoenix seems to be the long-cancelled X34. Two prototypes of this 18m (60ft) long spacecraft were built but they were mothballed in 2001. However, they have recently been spotted being transferred from their hangars to a testing facility in Mojave, California.
It seems that, at this stage at least, the craft are being investigated as a curiosity but if still functional they could be developed to join America’s growing fleet of robotic spacecraft. There is also speculation that they might be sold on to the private space sector to join the likes of SpaceShipOne. For the moment at least, it seems that the X programme’s glory years are now long gone.
However, in reality it never really died – its baton has just been passed on to the private spacecraft developers who have demonstrated no less ingenuity and creativity to develop the craft that could, one day, carry you and me into space.