This month the Air Force will send the X-37—a sort of unmanned mini-space shuttle salvaged from a scrapped NASA project—into orbit, but its intentions, what the X-37 is designed to do, and why it rescued a project NASA planned to ax in 2006 remain mysteriously unclear. The Air Force will gain “the ability to bring back payloads and experiments to examine how well the experiments performed on-orbit,” says an official. Others are not so sure.
“It's a little puzzling as to whether this is the beginning of a program or the end of one,” says an analyst, alluding to the idea that this could be a prototype for what could become a military fleet. The Air Force has not disclosed how long the craft will be in orbit, but it can stay aloft for nine months, and some wonder if it might be used as a sort of space-based Predator drone, the Christian Science Monitor reports. The less jaded think it could be a boon for commercial space travel. As one blogger writes, it might be “a good demonstrator for a commercial reusable orbital stage.”