Russia is Building its Own Military Space Plane to Match the Mysterious X-37B

Space Plane Spy

Space Plane Spy

Amateur astronomers have unlocked some secrets of the X-37B space plane.NASA/Boeing via New York Times

In what some are calling a second iteration of the space race, it seems the Russians have found a "Sputnik moment" of their own. In the wake of the recent successful wrap-up of the X-37B's first orbital mission—a 220-day affair that reportedly saw the Air Force's mysterious unmanned space plane complete a range of on-orbit maneuvers and tests that the U.S.A.F. isn't talking about—the head of Russia's military space command has said his country is building a space plane of its own.

The head of Russia's armed forces division in charge of military space operations, Oleg Ostapenko, said the Russians have already drawn up a design similar to the X-37 design, but stopped short of providing any hard details. And why should he? The X-37B has been kept under serious wraps; we know that it launched, that it orbited for 220 days, and that it successfully came home. Outside of that, only the mission handlers and engineers involved in the program know what the plane did while in orbit, or what it might be asked to do once it—or something like it—is fully operational.

The admission that Russian space researchers are actively pursuing their own mission-capable, reusable space plane suggests that much as Americans were prompted to pour vast resources and effort into its space program after Sputnik's launch in 1957, Russians see an important orbital technology edge being lost to the U.S. in the the successful launch of the X-37s.

That's understandable. The X-37, like the Space Shuttles it shares a common heritage with, has an undeniable military aspect to it. A reusable space plane can provide important civilian and scientific space capabilities, but it can also be used to rapidly launch small military satellite arrays, put munitions into orbit, or disable enemy satellites.

The X-37B is 30 feet long, has a 15-foot wingspan, and possesses a cargo bay about the size of a pickup truck bed, and the Russian "X-37ski" (as Danger Room has termed it) would likely boast roughly similar specs. But we're probably several years from seeing a Russian clone in orbit. The X-37 design has been in the works since the late 1990s, and a second launch is already planned for early March (a second X-37B, the so-called OTV 2, will undertake this second mission; OTV 1 is slated to fly again later this year). So the U.S. has a comfortable head start.

Then again, a dozen years after the Soviets beat the Americans into orbit a U.S. flag was planted on the moon. Let the new space race begin.