The US Air Force’s X-37B space plane has finally ended its record-breaking mission, touching down on Sunday, May 7 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The space plane orbited the Earth for an unparalleled 718 days, and made the first landing at the SLF since the last space shuttle mission landed in July 2011, Space.com says. Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th SW commander of the Air Force, said,
Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing as we continue to break barriers.
He added, “Our team has been preparing for this event for several years, and I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B.”
The mission, called OTV-4 (Orbital Test Vehicle-4), was the program’s fourth. All of the missions launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, while the first three landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Air Force authorities have said that they want to centralize all operations on Space Coast, so this landing might be the first of more to come.
Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said, “The hard work of the X-37B OTV team and the 45th Space Wing successfully demonstrated the flexibility and resolve necessary to continue the nation’s advancement in space.” She further explained, “The ability to land, refurbish, and launch from the same location further enhances the OTV’s ability to rapidly integrate and qualify new space technologies.”
There are two X-37B space plane vehicles built by Boeing. The space shuttle launches vertically and returns to Earth for a runway landing. All of the space plane’s payloads and activities are highly classified, but the Air Force has stressed that they are not carrying weapons, but are simply testing technologies.
Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman, told Space.com that, “Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal-protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal, reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing.”