Air Force takes over 2 shuttle processing facilities

CBS News

Already using one of the space shuttle hangars at the Kennedy Space Center for its CST-100 commercial crew ship, Boeing is modifying KSC's remaining two orbiter processing facilities to service the secret X-37B spaceplane for the Air Force, NASA announced Wednesday.

The Boeing-built X37B is an unpiloted winged spacecraft that launches atop an Atlas 5 rocket, carries out classified long-duration flights in low-Earth orbit and glides to a runway landing. Two spacecraft have been built to date, completing two successful missions. A third mission, launched in December 2012, is still ongoing with no word from the Air Force on what it has been doing or when it might land.

NASA built three Orbiter Processing Facilities, or OPFs, to service its space shuttle fleet between missions. All three are located next to the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building at the Florida spaceport where Apollo Saturn 5 moon rockets and space shuttles were "stacked" for launch.

Under an agreement with NASA, Boeing will modify OPF bays 1 and 2 for the X-37B program, completing upgrades by the end of the year.

The company already has an agreement with NASA to use OPF-3 and the shuttle engine shop in the VAB to assemble its CST-100 commercial crew craft being built to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The company says up to six capsules can be processed in the facility at the same time.

"Kennedy is positioning itself for the future, transitioning to a multi-user launch facility for both commercial and government customers, while embarking on NASA's new deep-space exploration plans," Kennedy Center Director Robert Cabana said in a news release. "A dynamic infrastructure is taking shape, designed to host many kinds of spacecraft and rockets."

It has long been expected that the Air Force would take advantage of the OPFs and Kennedy's 3-mile-long shuttle runway for the X-37B project to reduce the cost of servicing the spaceplanes between flights. The first two X-37B missions launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The uncrewed orbiter is based on the same lifting body design used for the space shuttle and flies a similar re-entry trajectory.

But the X-37B features more lightweight composite materials, improved wing insulation and tougher heat-shield tiles that "are significantly more durable than the first generation tiles used by the space shuttle," according to a Boeing website description. "All avionics on the X-37B are designed to automate all de-orbit and landing functions."

The X-37B includes a compact 4-foot by 7-foot payload bay and relies on a deployable solar array for electrical power.

The spaceplane first flew in 2010, spending 224 days in orbit before landing at Vandenberg. A second OTV flew in 2011, completing a 469-day mission. The X-37B launched in 2012 has been in orbit 666 days as of Wednesday.