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U.S. Air Force’s secretive space plane bags prestigious aerospace award

The U.S. Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane has bagged a prestigious trophy awarded annually for outstanding U.S. achievements in aviation and space.

Boeing, which designed and built the reusable, autonomous orbital vehicle, this week joined the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to receive the Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association.

The plane earned the honor for “advancing the performance, efficiency, and safety of air and space vehicles,” as well as for “changing access to space and serving as the nation’s workhorse in space experimentation and technology.” It comes in the wake of the X-37B’s groundbreaking mission that ended in 2019 after a record 780 days in low-Earth orbit.

The outing beat its previous record, set in 2017, by 63 days. It was originally designed for missions of no more than 270 days.

“Underscoring the importance of space to the nation, the Collier Trophy celebrates the record-setting mission of the X-37B,” Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, said in a release.

Now on its sixth mission

Since embarking on its maiden outing in 2010, the program has so far logged more than 2,865 days and traveled more than one billion miles across six missions, with the latest one, which launched in May 2020, still underway.

Commenting on the award, Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said members of her team felt “truly honored” that the X-37B had been recognized, adding that “not only have they earned a place among our industry’s legends through their commitment to innovation and performance, but their accomplishments will influence the next generation of space and aerospace development for the benefit of all humanity.”

U.S. Air Force

The X-37B orbital test vehicle looks a lot like the now-decommissioned Space Shuttle, though at just 8.8 meters (29 feet), it’s about a quarter the length.

A fair bit of mystery surrounds the X-37B and its missions, with the aircraft described by the USAF as being part of “an experimental test program” aimed at demonstrating various technologies and “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.”

Despite the classified nature of much of its work, we learned that during its record-breaking mission in 2019, the plane spent some of its time in space testing a number of technologies, among them advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; lightweight electromechanical flight systems; advanced propulsion systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry, and landing.

The X-37B has been the subject of controversy, too, with some accusing the U.S. of using it to spy on China’s Tiangong-1 space station module when it was in operation. However, various experts have disputed this, claiming their respective orbits were out of sync to such a degree that a mission of this nature would have been unachievable.

The Collier Trophy was first awarded in 1911 and has previously gone to Orville Wright, the Apollo 11 lunar landing team, Boeing aircraft, and the International Space Station, among others.

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