As SpaceX prepares for the first commercial docking with the International Space Station, the race to develop crew and cargo resupply vehicles continues to heat up. Emerging space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada are competing against one another and against established companies like Orbital Science and Boeing. Now, competition has reached the point where two divisions of the aerospace giant are competing against one another.

Boeing is hard at work developing the CST-100 capsule under the NASA Crew and Cargo Development (CCDEV) program.

Boeing CST-100 commercial space capsule

Late last year, it was revealed that another Boeing crew and cargo vehicle may be in the works. At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’s Space 2011 conference in November, Boeing’s Arthur Grantz revealed that the company is studying a new derivative of the Boeing/USAF X-37B. The new X-37C would be 65-80% larger than the current B version. Launched by an Atlas V rocket, X-37C could carry pressurized or unpressurized cargo or 5-6 astronauts. Grantz is chief engineer in charge of X-37 at the Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems Experimental Systems Group .

One advantage of the winged X-37C would be its gentle 1.5-gee reentry profile. The soft return would benefit astronauts who are deconditioned by long-duration missions in weightlessness as well as those who must be evacuated for medical reasons. Astronauts would normally ride in aircraft-like seats but the design includes provisions for transporting one astronaut on a stretcher. Fragile hardware, such as the results of biological or materials-processing experiments, would  also benefit.

The X-37C seems like a dark horse at the moment, since CST-100 is already in development and receiving funding under CCDEV, but rumors say that NASA is considering extending the life of the International Space Station again, to 2028. If that happens, the chances for new entries in the CCDEV race are likely to improve. X-37 could also carry citizen space explorers to a Bigelow space station and other Low Earth Orbit destinations in the future.

This type of internal competition is a sign of a healthy industry. In the commercial world, a good company is always trying to make its own products obsolete (before an external competitor does it for them).

Boeing/USAF X-37B

X-37 began as a NASA program in the late 1990’s. NASA funded the development of two vehicles. One vehicle, called X-40, was designed for approach-and-landing tests with a CH-47 helicopter used as the drop aircraft. The slightly larger X-37A was designed to go into space but never made it. The program was canceled and X-37A was mothballed for several years until the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) took it over. X-37A was then used for additional approach-and-landing tests, using Scaled Composite’s White Knight  (originally built to carry SpaceShip One) as the drop aircraft.

Finally, in 2006, the US Air Force decided to proceed with orbital tests of the X-37. It was decided that the original X-37 was not adequate for this purpose, so a new version, called X-37B was constructed. Two X-37B vehicles were built. The first X-37B conducted a 225-day mission in space from April 22 to December 3, 2010. The second X-37B was launched on March 5, 2011. It is expected to remain in orbit for 270 days or longer. Although X-37B is designed to be reusable, neither of the two vehicles has yet been reflows. The Air Force officially designates the X-37B as an Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV. Various conspiracy theories claim X-37B is everything from a spy satellite to a space-weapons platform, but there’s no evidence to indicate that it is anything more than an experimental test platform as the Air Force states. The low flight rate would sam to preclude an operational role.

Written by Astro1 on March 25th, 2012 , Boeing

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    “second X-37B was launched on November 29, 2011”

    Nope, it was launched on March 5, 2011. It was announced on Nov. 29th that the mission would be extended past the 270 day mark.

    March 25, 2012 at 6:14 pm
    Ken Del Piero commented

    Minor typo – I’m pretty sure it wasn’t dropped from White Knight Two.

    Good article!

    March 25, 2012 at 8:12 pm
    Blackjax commented

    Given the existence of the SNC DreamChaser which seems to offer many of the same advantages, I am having trouble seeing what need the X-37C would fulfill which would justify the investment to create it.

    March 26, 2012 at 9:59 am
      admin commented

      Boeing’s need to produce a return for its stockholders. that’s the way competition works. Also keep in mind that DreamChaser does not exist just yet.

      March 26, 2012 at 10:32 am
        Blackjax commented

        That is actually the question, why would Boeing believe that this would generate a return? There doesn’t seem to be a strong case for it. I’m sure Boeing would be happy to do it if the military for some odd reason decided to pay for it, but it is unclear why they ever would in the current fiscal environment since similar capabilities are already in the advanced stages of development without them having to pay to develop them. Lacking a military project I don’t see Boeing doing anything more than ‘studying the concept’ because they aren’t convinced that the commercial market can close a business case even for the CST-100.

        Given that the DreamChaser may be doing a captive carry test next month, I think it might be overstating things to say it doesn’t exist. It isn’t production ready by a long shot, but it is certainly in a far more mature stage of development than something that is still a paper concept. My point focused mostly around the idea that if someone is looking to have a certain set of capabilities faster and for less money, they have other options which seem to have a stronger case for them.

        March 26, 2012 at 11:00 am
    Patrick commented

    Boeing has a flying airframe, so in a better world, it would be possible to scale it up and turn it into a commercial crew/cargo vehicle.


    1. X-37 is a black program, and disentangling the vehicle from the sucking tentacles of “classified” will involve more time and money than actual development. There is nothing in this process that remotely resembles common sense.

    2. Even disregarding the black aspect, “scale up” means “complete redesign” to an old cost-plus company like Boeing. Probably nothing but the basic shape would be carried through, and even the shape would be tweaked and re-tested at great expense.

    March 26, 2012 at 11:36 am
    Dan Woodard commented

    The X-37 is different from the Dreamchaser in that it uses a wing-and-fuselage configuration, which permits a higher lift-to-drag ratio and allows scaling to higher vehicle mass (one reason a winged configuration was chosen for the Shuttle). It also has a separated wing and tail, which provides much greater control authority in pitch. Taken together this provides a lower touchdown speed and a considerably better performance margin for landing in marginal conditions, always dicey with the wingless lifting body vehicles tested in years past.

    August 10, 2012 at 5:34 pm