Does the U.S. Military Have a Secret Space Shuttle?

The X-37B orbital test vehicle (military).
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility April 13, 2010, in Titusville, Florida. Air Force officials are scheduled to launch the X-37B April 21, 2010, at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida. The X-37B is the U.S.'s newest and most advanced unmanned re-entry spacecraft. U.S. Air Force

People love a good military conspiracy theory, including the one that the Air Force has its very own space shuttle. It all sounds very James Bond, but the truth is, the military never had a secret space shuttle hidden away. Instead, it used NASA's space shuttle fleet until 2011, and now has a mini-shuttle drone. 

The U.S. Military in Space

The theories about the military use of space stem largely from the fact that the U.S. Department of Defense flew secret missions on the shuttles when NASA was still using them to get to space.

Also, interestingly, when NASA's fleet was being developed, there were plans to make additional copies exclusively for military purposes. That affected the specifications of the shuttle design (such as the length of its glide path) so that the vehicle could accommodate such missions. There was also a shuttle launch facility built in California, at Vandenberg Air Force Base. This complex, called SLC-6 (or "Slick Six), was supposed to be used to put shuttle missions into polar orbits, but after the Challenger exploded in 1986, the complex was put into "caretaker status" and was never used for a shuttle launch. The facilities were mothballed until the military decided to retool it for satellite launches. It was used to support Athena launches until 2006, when Delta IV rockets began to lift off from the site. 

Use of the Shuttle Fleet for Military Operations

Ultimately, the military decided that having dedicated shuttle craft for the military was unnecessary.

Given the amount of technical support, staff and facilities required to run such a program it made more sense to use other resources to launch payloads into space. In addition, more sophisticated spy satellites were developed to accomplish reconnaissance missions.

Without its own fleet of shuttles, the military has relied on NASA's vehicles to meet its needs for access to space.

In fact, the space shuttle Discovery was planned to be available to the military as their exclusive shuttle (with civilian use as it was available). It was even going to be launched from the military's Vandenberg's SLC-6 launch complex. Ultimately the plan was scrapped following the Challenger disaster. In recent years, the space shuttle fleet has been retired and new spacecraft are being designed to take humans to space.

For years, the military used whatever shuttle was available at the time of need, and military payloads were launched from the usual launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. The last shuttle flight strictly for military use was carried out in 1992 (STS-53). Subsequent military cargo was taken up by shuttles as a secondary part of their missions. 

As it turns out, it wasn't necessary for military cargo to be carried aboard shuttles. With the increasingly reliable use of rockets, the military has much more cost-effective access to space. 

Meet the X-37B Mini-shuttle "Drone"

While the military hasn't had a need for a conventional manned orbiting vehicle, there are situations that could call for a shuttle-type craft. However, these craft will be quite different from the current stable of orbiters; perhaps not in look, but definitely in function.

The X-37 shuttle is a good example of where the military is going with a shuttle-type spacecraft. It was originally designed as a potential replacement for the current shuttle fleet. It had its first successful flight in 2010, launched from atop a rocket. The craft carries no crew, its missions are secret, and it is entirely robotic. This mini-shuttle has flown several long-term missions, most likely performing reconnaissance flights and specific types of experiments. 

Clearly the military is interested in the ability to place objects into orbit as well have reusable spy craft so expansion of projects like the X-37 seems entirely possible and very likely will continue into the foreseeable future. The U.S. Air Force maintains a space command, with bases and units around the globe. Its missions are to provide space and cyberspace capabilities for the country, as needed.

 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Millis, John P., Ph.D. "Does the U.S. Military Have a Secret Space Shuttle?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/does-us-military-secret-space-shuttle-3073504. Millis, John P., Ph.D. (2017, March 2). Does the U.S. Military Have a Secret Space Shuttle? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/does-us-military-secret-space-shuttle-3073504 Millis, John P., Ph.D. "Does the U.S. Military Have a Secret Space Shuttle?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/does-us-military-secret-space-shuttle-3073504 (accessed January 17, 2018).