When it's a UAV bomber, chances are it's not covered by the existing nuclear non-proliferation treaties, either.
As NASA's space shuttle fleet sputters toward a planned 2010 retirement, the next generation of U.S. space planes is gestating in the heart of the U.S. military.
The U.S. Military Space Plane -- or MSP -- has been high on the Pentagon's wish list since at least 2003, when an Air Force planning document revealed the military's desire for a quick-launch space plane that could drop a bomb anywhere on the globe within two hours, without the need of forward bases.
Also wanted is a space vehicle that can repair, deploy and even attack satellites, or insert reconnaissance drones into the atmosphere -- all within hours of orders.
Space weapons experts say the technology is at least 10 to 20 years away from being operational. But a small number of MSP prototypes are being tested in some type of wind tunnel today.
"We know this because it's in the budget," said Michael Katz-Hyman, a research associate for The Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington D.C. think tank, pointing to line items in the research and development area of the Defense Department’s $400-billion, 2007 budget request.
One potential MSP has already taken flight -- however briefly. In 2004, Boeing's unmanned X-37 orbital plane, originally a replacement candidate for the space shuttle, was transferred from NASA to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
In April of this year, the newly classified craft had its first atmospheric "drop test," in which it was carried to high altitude, released and directed to land. The plane overshot the runway and was promptly removed from the public eye.
The remotely piloted X-37 is much smaller than the space shuttle, with a weight, including fuel, of 5 to 8 tons and a length of roughly 9 meters, according to scientists at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. In contrast, the shuttle weighs 94 tons and is 37 meters long. The X-37 can carry a payload of just 1 to 2 tons, compared with shuttle's 20 tons.
Like the space shuttle, the X-37 needs a rocket boost, or the assistance of another aircraft, to achieve orbit -- requiring a half-day of preparation before a mission. Katz-Hyman says the Air Force and Darpa hope to someday build a so-called "single-stage-to-orbit" space plane that will simply take off from a runway.
In the meantime, the military is researching near-space weapons delivery systems under the Falcon project [.pdf from DARPA], or Forced Application and Launch from the Continental United States. Like the X-37, Falcon is managed by Darpa, and contracted to several aerospace defense giants, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Katz-Hyman says all the research is driven by the Pentagon's desperate desire for the capability to carry out a "rapid global strike," i.e., hit any target on Earth within two hours of orders being issued. Currently, long-range bomber runs using stealth bombers or B-52s take 12 to 24 hours to execute, depending on which U.S. base is used and where the target is located.
Whether the MSP will provide that quick-bombing capability remains to be seen. But for now, as in so many times in history, military needs are driving research of potentially significant civilian importance...
The better to bomb you with, my dear. Weapons that aren't really classified as weapons.