The Air Force’s X-37B is a Boeing-built unmanned spacecraft that bears a striking resemblance to the old Space Shuttle (despite being significantly smaller). Although the program itself is shrouded in secrecy, its long-term orbital missions often make the headlines, thanks in no small part to the decidedly un-secret sonic booms the platform creates over Florida upon reentry. Publicly, little is known about the X-37Bs mission, capabilities, or internal technology — but it’s certainly caught the attention of near-peer opponents like China, who are already feverishly working on their own equivalent.

US Air Force photoSo what exactly is this secretive space-plane up to? Let’s be clear up front: any assertions or apparent conclusions formed in the body of this piece should be filed in your mind under “informed conjecture.” Because of the classified nature of the program, it’s impossible to say with real certainty what the X-37B is up to, but by following its operational progression from the platform’s first drop test in 2006 to its latest record-breaking orbital mission that concluded earlier this year, there’s enough information available to make a few deductive leaps regarding its value as both a technology demonstrator and surveillance platform in one.

The high cost of spy satellites

While we still rely on spy planes for some operations, having downward facing observatories in orbit grants us the continued ability to keep tabs on international opponents, see troop and equipment movements, and gather intelligence that can supplement information gained through other sources.  Having an eye in the sky (or a series of them) is invaluable to our nation’s defense efforts… but despite the term, that invaluable level of observation comes with a pretty hefty price tag.