Perhaps you haven’t heard of the X-37B. That would be entirely understandable because the mainstream media hasn’t done much to publicize its existence.

But the X-37B is very real and is up to something that probably falls somewhere between very interesting and downright incredible.

First, a brief X-37B bio. The X-37B is an unmanned space plane that resembles a miniature version of the now retired manned space shuttles (it’s about a quarter their size). Built by Boeing, the reusable space “drone” measures about 29 feet long and 15 feet wide and has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. It began as a NASA project in 1999, and its operation and administration was given over to the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

The X-37B made its maiden test flight in April 2006 at California’s Edwards Air Force Base. Its first orbital mission took place in April 2010, with launch via Atlas V rocket at Florida’s Cape Canaveral and touchdown at Vandenberg AFB, near Santa Barbara, Calif.

On that inaugural orbital flight, the X-37B stayed aloft for 226 days. The second time it went up, it stayed up for 469 days – a record for a launch-and-land type of craft.

The X-37B was launched again in December 2012. The very interesting to downright incredible” part? It’s still up there.

Yep, the Air Force has had a robotic shuttle-like craft circling Earth for about 500 days, obviously another record. But don’t ask what the X-37B has been doing for so long; the Air Force willingly brags about the technological achievement aspect of this cosmic mini-van, but goes silent when it comes to actual details of its missions.

Obviously, that leaves the door wide open for speculation – some of which is, of course, a bit far-fetched (although not necessarily out of the realm of possibility).

Is it some sort of space bomber, capable of pinpointing and nailing targets from miles above Earth?

Probably not.

Is it or absorbing data from other countries’ satellites, or playing galactic bumper cars with them? Is it looking down on China’s Tiangong-1 space station or peering deep into jungles with high-powered infrared cameras?

Is it spying on some sort of “enemy” outposts and installations, and perhaps looking through the windows of their commanding officers’ offices to see what classified paperwork they left sitting in plain sight?

While there’s no proof of what exactly the X-37B has been doing for close to a year and a half, it’s interesting to note that according to Fox News, amateur astronomers have tracked its path over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

Surely a coincidence, right?

Whatever the X-37B is in fact doing, it’s doing it in a hurry, because like other machines that travel in a vacuum without the burden of friction, it moves at about 17,000 miles per hour. And since the Air Force won’t say, who knows how long it can keep zipping around Earth and whether or not it can “park” next to other spacecraft in order to learn from them or mess with them?

Like I said: At least interesting, if not wildly so.

Anyway, it’s apparent that “we” have the X-37B and “they” don’t (and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad). Too bad it’s not apparent what “we” have it for.

I guess Air Force brass consider us regular folk on a need-to-know basis with regard to details of what their high-tech space toy is doing, and they’ve apparently determined we don’t need to know. But Google “X-37B” and you’ll see many articles about it posted by a variety of news sources, from the obscure “watchman on the wall” variety (that specialize in delving into the stuff our government would prefer go unnoticed by us regular types out here in the trenches) to the Foxes, CNNs and BBCs of the world (although the well-known sources don’t seem to feel led to use any primetime TV airtime on it).

Anyway, I think we can safely assume the X-37B isn’t setting the stage for a big new Disney attraction called “Spaced Out,” or carrying out experiments for Bill Nye the Science Guy to determine what happens to gerbils or algae when they’re subjected to a weightless environment for an extended period. No, its orbital marathon is likely no Mickey Mouse issue or PBS kids’ project.

In a way, NASA and the Air Force remind me of agent Kay in “Men in Black” saying, “move along folks, nothing to see here” (or however it went), when we of course know there is.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:

Links to stuff about the x-37B



Workers dressed in protective suits inspect the The X-37B after its second orbital mission.

Workers dressed in protective suits inspect the The X-37B after its second orbital mission.

The USAF's X-37B space plane.

The USAF’s X-37B space plane.


X-37B nose.

The X-37B.

The X-37B.