After bidding farewell to more than 1,900 space vehicles, Vandenberg Air Force Base has worked to instead get ready to greet one very high-profile spacecraft.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the Air Force’s unmanned miniature space shuttle, is scheduled to land as soon as Friday morning at Vandenberg’s 3-mile-long runway.
“This is a historical first, not only for Vandenberg Air Force Base but also our Air Force and our nation to receive a recoverable spacecraft here and really take a step forward for unmanned space flight,” said Col. Richard Boltz, 30th Space Wing commander.
Launched from the East Coast in April, the secretive X-37B plane is from the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office. The spacecraft is designed to conduct experiments in space and test technologies and can stay in orbit for up to 270 days.
Weather could interfere with Friday’s landing plans; Boltz said a rain system
moving south is creating a
60 percent likelihood the landing attempt would have to be delayed.
Officials have said the landing attempt could occur between Friday and Monday, with one shot for Friday, but multiple tries other days. They remain mum about what time the autopiloted plane can return.
The small vehicle with a wingspan of 15 feet, length of 29 feet, height of nearly
10 feet and weight of 11,000 pounds, doesn’t have a lot of lights, so officials say landing likely won’t be visible.
However, the spacecraft might create a sonic boom that could be heard on some parts of the Central Coast. Whether a sonic boom occurs — and can be heard by local residents — depends upon the vehicle’s speed, weather conditions and other factors.
For safety during its inaugural landing, the craft will approach the runway from the Pacific Ocean.
“That will maximize the time it’s over the ocean, and it won’t fly over any populated areas,” Boltz said. “So that’s all done for safety precautions.”
In preparing for the landing, officials have built upon lessons learned during more than five decades of launching rockets and missiles, according to Boltz.
But they still encountered, and overcame, some new challenges.
One large team had to hurriedly design, build and install replacement steel discs, or runway centerline light plates, that posed a hazard to X-37B’s tires.
It wasn’t a small chore to fix, and involved what Boltz called a “remarkable effort.” Some 658 plates that line the 15,000 foot runway had to be pried from the ground where they had been since the 1980s and replaced.
With the launch imminent, completion became more urgent this spring so a small army of workers completed the project over three Saturdays to ensure the runway could accommodate an emergency landing if needed shortly after blastoff.
To meet the deadline, they had to chase delivery drivers down to get packages containing the thousands of bolts used for each plate so that work crews could
remain on track.
“This was one of the few projects that everything went right, and everything had to go right,” said Lefty Pakulski, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron. “It was a real exciting time for us.”.
At the Western Range, which ensures launches can occur safely, crews had to craft rules for safety for accommodating a vehicle’s arrival, instead of its departure.
“The procedures and terminology have changed a little bit, but as you can imagine the one thing that hasn’t changed is the focus on public safety,” said
Lt. Pierre Gregoire, mission flight control officer with 2nd Range Operations Squadron. “How we trained for the mission really hasn’t changed except for the fact we have a little bit less archive history to go off of. It adds a little bit more excitement when you’re doing something for the first time, as with anything.”
If the vehicle begins veering off course, Gregoire would issue the flight termination command to destroy the vehicle.
But as a first-time vehicle, range crews had to develop procedures — and practice for assorted scenarios they could face as the vehicle returns.
The Western Range team has held countless rehearsals for the landing, according to Gregoire.