By James Dean, Florida Today
A secretive military space plane will move into a vacant former space shuttle hangar at Kennedy Space Center, potentially bringing hundreds of jobs, officials confirmed last week.
Use of the former shuttle hangar called Orbiter Processing Facility-1 will allow the Air Force's classified X-37B program "to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and re-launch" the unmanned system in Florida, according to
The Boeing Co., which built and supports the program's two orbital vehicles.
The Air Force and Boeing would not comment further, and did not disclose the move's financial or jobs impact.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Friday that the program would mean "hundreds" of jobs, first to renovate the processing facility and then from Boeing's engineering, technician and support team.
"This is significant for KSC because it is again additional space business, but diversification," said Nelson.
Space Florida records previously estimated the program could start with 200 employees, but it was not clear whether those projections remained valid.
The state aerospace agency's board has approved spending up to $9 million provided by the Florida Department of Transportation to renovate two former shuttle hangars that are joined together, including the one Boeing said it will use for the X-37B.
Officials did not say how soon the military program could move to the space center, which has been seeking new users for facilities it no longer needs after the shuttle's retirement in 2011.
Modernization of a third shuttle processing hangar is nearing completion in preparation for its lease to Boeing for an unrelated program.
Under a deal announced in 2011, Boeing plans to build commercial crew capsules in the facility if it wins contracts to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, potentially adding 550 jobs.
NASA is in negotiations with SpaceX to take over one of Kennedy Space Center's two launch pads, and with Space Florida to take over operations of the center's three-mile runway, where the X-37B would land just like a shuttle.
"We have long touted how attractive our unique infrastructure and workforce are to both the private sector and the military, and we are excited that this project capitalizes on both of those strengths while laying the groundwork for future growth," said Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, one of the partners in the agreement led by Space Florida.
The Economic Development Commission said it had joined a team 16 months ago to help put together "an attractive location package" for the X-37B program. The package's value was not released.
Measuring 29 feet in length with a nearly 15-foot wingspan, and weighing about 11,000 pounds at launch, the X-37B resembles a miniature space shuttle but does not carry people.
Speculation abounds about what it does carry, with Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office saying only that the system is a test platform for reusable spacecraft technologies in low Earth orbit.
Some believe the space plane's purpose may be to test advanced sensors for spy satellites. Others claim it is to perform surveillance, deploy weapons, track or disable satellites, or maybe just serve as a decoy to confuse adversaries.
"This is a program that is important to American national security," said Nelson, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It's experimental in nature, but it will last."
Since 2010, the vehicles have launched three times from Cape Canaveral, Fla., atop Atlas V rockets.
The last one to launch, in December 2012, was the first re-flight of a previously flown X-37B and has been in orbit for more than a year.
The first two missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after 224 days and 469 days in space, respectively, and that is where the vehicles were processed between flights.
The Air Force has said the third mission could land at Kennedy Space Center, and had acknowledged that it was studying potential cost savings that could result from consolidating X-37B operations in Florida.http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/01/05/kennedy-space-center-lands-secret-space-plane-x37b/4328367/