The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is first on this list because of thee words - Prompt Global Strike. That's right... leaving aside the smoke, mirrors and official reasons for the existence of this USV (Unmanned Space Vehicle) the only analysis that makes any real sense when you think about it is that they are nuke/bomb/space-gun carriers.

Source: Boeing

Think about it...  currently the only nation that has 'successfully tested' an anti-satellite weapon is China, and Russia claims that their upcoming S-500 Prometheus SAM packs enough of a punch to one day do the same... and if you really, really think about it... satellites are sitting ducks out there, floating around in their predetermined orbits, easy to track and easy enough even to hit with a high velocity rock if you can throw far enough and aim well enough or if they god forbid find themselves in the path on one... and civilisation as we know it depends on them.  

Officially, The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is an experimental test program, (that much we can all agree on) to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. As the Air Force press releases read, there are two primary objectives of the X-37B;

  1. reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and
  2. operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.

It is worth pointing out at this point that the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is leading the Department of Defence's Orbital Test Vehicle initiative, by direction of the Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and the Secretary of the Air Force.

Translation... the U.S. Air Force needs a space-plane... something that can pretty much do doughnuts around a satellite of their choosing and/or take shit out from orbit, that can be loaded with a mission specific package and return to Earth for maintenance and reloading. Kind of what the lineup of extremely successful (read: cheap) UAV fleet can do...

A bit of history for context... NASA’s original X-37 program began way back in 1999 and was subsequently transferred to DARPA in 2004. In the very beginning NASA envisioned building two vehicles, an Approach and Landing Test Vehicle, or ALTV, and an Orbital Vehicle as test platforms. As DARPA took over the project, they completed the ALTV portion of the X-37 program in 2006, executing a series of captive carry and free flight tests which aimed to reduce the risks to the X-37 orbital vehicle (OV) flight program by:

  1. Testing a subset of OV technologies in a critical portion of the flight envelope.
  2. Validating the calculated air data system (CADS) performance/subsonic aerodynamic database.
  3. Demonstrating OV approach and landing trajectory.
  4. Expending the operational flight envelope of the OV-enabling more landing opportunities for orbital missions. *

With the ALTV test vehicle DARPA successfully validated the flight dynamics of the platform and extended the flight envelope beyond the low speed/low altitude tests previously conducted by NASA on the X-40A, which was a a sub-scale version of the X-37 developed by Air Force Research Labs. NASA’s X-37 Orbital Vehicle was never built, but its design provided a solid starting point for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle program under the tutelage of DARPA and the U.S. Air Force.

The X-37B OTV is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft that we as Joe/Jane Public are currently aware of. As it was envisioned in the initial project, the unmanned OTV is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit where it can hang around for a very long time an conduct 'space experiments'. Upon command the X-37B is capable of autonomously re-entering the atmosphere, descending, and landing horizontally on pretty much any regular Air Force runway. The real scientific milestone worth mentioning here is that the X-37B is in fact the first vehicle since the Space Shuttle with the ability to fly up and then return experiments to Earth for analysis, which wouldn't be anything to write home about if it wasn't for it's reported on-orbit time of 270 days or greater... the X-37B can stay in space for much, much longer... meaning it can idle over an enemy capital for months/years undetected, ready to deploy it's payload at a push of a button.

Since the premise of this article is that we should look at the current arms race as a boon for science and tech, let's end this brief story about the X-37B in practical terms... In the process of making a better space bomber, what we are actually doing as a species is testing advanced guidance, thermal protection systems that can withstand reentry, orbital navigation and control, advanced avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformable reusable insulation, super lightweight electro-mechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing...and that's just the things we know of... Check out the full video of the latest launch of the X-37B below...  Space... here we come!