Drone is the first spacecraft in years to use a key Shuttle runway
Kennedy Space Center is slowly coming back to life, but you almost wouldn’t know it by looking at the Shuttle Landing Facility. While it has seen some limited use for aircraft in recent years, it hasn’t been used for an orbital mission landing since… well, the last Space Shuttle in 2011. At last, though, it’s back to serving its core purpose. The US Air Force’s X-37B space drone has touched down at the facility after completing its fourth mission. The highly secretive, autonomous spacecraft could have landed as early as February, but stayed aloft those extra few months for unknown reasons.
This was also a record-setting flight. The 718-day stint trounces the 674 days of the third expedition, which landed in 2014. It’s apparent that the X-37B has little trouble handling extended trips — far longer than the official 270-day ceiling. While it’s unclear how much longer the USAF plans to use the drone, it’s safe to say that flight time for any future adventures is now dictated more by the mission itself than technical limitations.
Also, the landing helps fulfill visions of the revived Kennedy center as a bustling, multi-user spaceflight hub. While SpaceX was quick to spring for a 20-year lease for the famous 39A launch pad, the port has remained relatively quiet beyond that. NASA will eventually rejoin the fray when it uses pad 39B for its Space Launch System’s first blast-off in 2019. It’ll be a while before KSC is in full swing, then, but it’s definitely much more than a relic of space travel’s earlier days.