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March 6, 2006
To Boldly Stop Going?

Aviation Weekly reports that the US has mothballed an aircraft capable of space flight that has operated secretly for over a decade but now finds itself the victim of shrinking budgets. The unacknowledged plane can, according to sources that AW has worked for years without receiving evidentiary proof, enter space with a two-stage booster system and insert satellites into low orbit (h/t: Jim O):

For 16 years, Aviation Week & Space Technology has investigated myriad sightings of a two-stage-to-orbit system that could place a small military spaceplane in orbit. Considerable evidence supports the existence of such a highly classified system, and top Pentagon officials have hinted that it's "out there," but iron-clad confirmation that meets AW&ST standards has remained elusive. Now facing the possibility that this innovative "Blackstar" system may have been shelved, we elected to share what we've learned about it with our readers, rather than let an intriguing technological breakthrough vanish into "black world" history, known to only a few insiders. U.S. intelligence agencies may have quietly mothballed a highly classified two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane system designed in the 1980s for reconnaissance, satellite-insertion and, possibly, weapons delivery. It could be a victim of shrinking federal budgets strained by war costs, or it may not have met performance or operational goals. ...

A large "mothership," closely resembling the U.S. Air Force's historic XB-70 supersonic bomber, carries the orbital component conformally under its fuselage, accelerating to supersonic speeds at high altitude before dropping the spaceplane. The orbiter's engines fire and boost the vehicle into space. If mission requirements dictate, the spaceplane can either reach low Earth orbit or remain suborbital.

The manned orbiter's primary military advantage would be surprise overflight. There would be no forewarning of its presence, prior to the first orbit, allowing ground targets to be imaged before they could be hidden. In contrast, satellite orbits are predictable enough that activities having intelligence value can be scheduled to avoid overflights. ...

THE SPACEPLANE'S SMALL CARGO or "Q-bay" also could be configured to deliver specialized microsatellites to low Earth orbit or, perhaps, be fitted with no-warhead hypervelocity weapons--what military visionaries have called "rods from god." Launched from the fringes of space, these high-Mach weapons could destroy deeply buried bunkers and weapons facilities.

It's difficult to know whether to take this report seriously. One would think NASA would have shown a lot of interest in this launch concept, especially to move personnel between the International Space Station and Earth after the destruction of Discovery. The space agency has attempted to design new launch platforms for space travel for two decades as the shuttle fleet approaches its design limits and as the nation debates the wisdom and safety of rocket-style launches with little capacity for escape in an emergency.

AW does provide a good circumstantial case for the existence of the program, though, along with the "trust me" aspect of using their anonymous sources within defense circles. The sudden Pentagon acceptance of the end of the SR-71 program and the elimination of the Army anti-satellite program suggested even at the time that the DoD must have found a suitable replacement for both, perhaps on "black box" budgets. AW also has at least one sighting of the plane with its purported "mother ship" from a reliable source, an aviation insider who knows what such a construct would look like.

If this program has been defunded, it would also suggest that the US has a replacement for it, especially during wartime. The possibilities that holds would be almost limitless and could eventually boost the space program when secrecy is no longer such an issue. Read the entire article and decide for yourself.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 6, 2006 6:07 AM

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