Russian Space Plane Prompts Talk of a New Space Race

U.S. Air Force image of the U.S. X-37B before launch.

Flight Global reported yesterday on Russia’s announcement of a new space plane to rival the United States X-37B, an unmanned orbital craft designed to deliver payloads but not ferry people.

The Russian program was announced by Oleg Ostapenko, “the head of the armed forces unit dedicated to military space operations.”

David Axe of Wired’s Danger Room picked up the report this morning,which led me to his earlier ultra-fascinating Wired article on the X-37B and its creepy stalky behavior in space. Suddenly Flight Global’s assertion that the new Russian plane represents a military space race seems way more sensible. Axe clearly comes down on the “yes” side of the space race argument, as shown by his July article in The Diplomat.

Because the U.S. has been ferrying its astronauts to the International Spaceship using Russian vessels — at a cost of millions a head — I’ve been assuming that if there is a new space race, this one won’t be about national security or military dominance, but about economics. In this global marketplace, plenty of people think those three things are now identical.

Military capability on the ground is, of course, increasingly determined by satellite surveillance and communications. Without satellites, a modern army can’t fight a strategic war — at least, not on a large scale. That means that a space race could have greater ramifications on Earthbound warfare than people could have foreseen in the ’60s and ’70s, when the fear of space-based death rays occasionally reached near-hysterical proportions.

A future space war wouldn’t look like that at all, but it would potentially have a huge impact on the ground (and the sea, and in the air). And after reading these articles, I’m not so sure that we won’t see a new military space race, and soon. Or maybe we are already. Flight Global mentions some crazy stuff about the military intentions of the X-37B program:

While the Shuttle always had a military aspect to its operations, its inherent flexibility and manned configuration made it the standard-bearer for US civil and scientific space flight for 30 years. X-37B, or whatever operational vehicle may follow it, is clearly being developed for military use. As Richard McKinney, deputy under-secretary of the Air Force for space programmes, puts it: “We’re in a very serious and important business of providing national security space capabilities for our nation. Some of those capabilities are state-of-the-art, highly complex and very technical.”

He adds that the ability to examine such technologies as space situational awareness, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and satellite development before they are made operational “is a long-sought-after capability that the X-37B provides. Now we can test those capabilities long in advance of putting them in operational space.”

While the X-37B may look like a small, unmanned version of the Space Shuttle, it is better thought of as a satellite capable of, on command from the ground, folding up its solar array and safely re-entering the atmosphere. Ground controllers cannot take over the re-entry flight, but can destroy the craft should it stray from pre-determined safety boundaries.

Gary Payton, US Air Force under-secretary for space programmes, has told Flight International that the goal of the X-37B programme is to be able to land the craft and fly it again less than 10-15 days later: “If we were in a surge environment, where we were putting up a whole bunch of satellites over a month or two, I would like to see the X-37B handle much more like a [Lockheed] SR-71.”


The X-37 recently returned to Earth after a 220-day mission in low earth orbit; its payload and orbital details were highly classified, but it was spotted back in May by amateur astronomers. According to a BBC article from December, 2010, some of those astronomers claim the X-37 may have been following the paths of non-U.S. military satellites, but the Air Force rejects that assertion. In fact, the BBC quotes Gary Payton again — same guy quoted above — who, fresh from saying he wants it to handle like an SR-71, calls phooey on the idea that the X-37B represents some sort of escalation of U.S. military presence in space. Just business as usual, he says.

Gary Payton, the Air Force’s deputy undersecretary for space programmes, sought to allay worries about the X-37B and the potential weaponisation of space.

“I don’t know how this could be called weaponisation of space. It’s just an updated version of the space shuttle type of activities in space,” he said.

“We, the Air Force, have a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better.”

But some countries could be unsettled by speculation the craft might be capable of inspecting foreign military satellites.

According to amateur satellite watchers, who have been tracking the experimental vehicle since its launch, the craft changed its orbital path around six times.

Some of those skywatchers have also claimed that characteristics of the X-37B’s orbit are shared with spy satellites that carry out imaging reconnaissance, as well as scientific remote sensing spacecraft.


Wired’s Danger Room also has some interesting stuff about the X-37’s zigs and zags.

Information about the new Russian space plane itself is sparse at this point, sadly. But if you want to know what it might be based on, Flight Global mentions the late-1980s Russian Buran program as a possible model for the new one. Buran was similar to the U.S. Space Shuttle, but was designed to carry a larger payload (30,000 kg compared to 17,000 kg for the Space Shuttle). Buran was launched once in 1988 and orbited twice but was cancelled in 1993.

I remember back in the good old days, there was much talk of how much the Buran shuttle looked like the U.S. Space Shuttle. Plenty of Americans called foul and said old Ivan had clearly stolen our design.

Huffy science nerds in Santa Cruz guffawed about it, but nobody seemed to be able prove it. A 1997 series on MSNBC says yup, they stole it.

Don’t tell the Russians, though — any mention of the Buran having not been developed independently results in a flurry of pro-Russian howling on any message board you can find.

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