By Marina Malenic

The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing last week successfully launched an Atlas V rocket carrying the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The launch marks the first flight of the Boeing [BA] Phantom Works X-37B, which is expected to provide a flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from space. A number of new technologies will also be tested on the OTV itself, according to the Air Force.

“If these technologies on the vehicle prove to be as good as we estimate, it will make our access to space more responsive, perhaps cheaper, and push us in the vector toward being able to react to warfighter needs more quickly,” Gary Payton, the service’s deputy undersecretary for space programs, announced in a statement directly following the April 22 evening launch.

The X-37B is the country’s first unmanned reentering space vehicle and supports the Pentagon’s technology risk reduction efforts for new satellite systems. It will provide an “on-orbit laboratory” test environment to prove new technology and components before they are committed to operational satellite programs.

Payton last week quashed speculation that the new space vehicle is a weapons platform.

“I don’t know how this could be called a weaponization of space,” he told reporters during a teleconference preceding the launch. “Fundamentally, it’s just an updated version of the space shuttle kinds of activities in space.”

The program began as a civilian project under NASA in 1999 geared toward test landing. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) took over the work in 2004, and the work was handed off to the Air Force in 2006.

“After a tumultuous history of sponsorship, it’s great to see the X-37 finally get to the launch pad and get into space,” Payton told reporters.

The spacecraft resembles a miniature space shuttle and is equipped with a payload bay the size of a pickup truck bed, according to Payton. It can carry two small satellites weighing up to a few hundred kilograms each.

The X-37B is now expected to loiter in space up to 270 days. It is designed to make an autonomous landing at either Vandenberg AFB or Edwards AFB, Calif.

A follow-on plane is already under contract and could be launched next year, officials said.

“We do have a second tail number on contract,” said Payton. “Currently, we’re looking at a 2011 launch for that second tail number, assuming that everything goes properly and as predicted on this first flight.”

Funding for the project is contained in the Air Force’s classified budget. According to one official who spoke on condition of anonymity, hundreds ofmillions of dollars have been spent on the project since its 1999 inception.