Unmanned spacecraft developed by Air Force has successful launch

A small robotic spacecraft that looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle was successfully launched Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The 29-foot-long spacecraft, dubbed the X-37, was sent up atop an Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.

The unmanned space plane has been shrouded in secrecy. The Air Force, which has been developing it, hasn’t said much, fueling speculation that it could be used as a weapon.

Built by Boeing’s advanced research lab, Phantom Works, in Huntington Beach, the X-37 would be the first U.S. unmanned spacecraft to be launched into space, come back to Earth and land on its own.

The X-37, which Air Force officials say can stay in space for as long as nine months, is expected to land on a 15,000-foot runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base, although Pentagon officials did not say when it would return. The landing strip was built for the space shuttle but was never used for it.

Public interest in the launch appears to have been high. Because of heavy traffic on the website showing the launch live, many were unable to access the webcast. United Launch Alliance spokesman Michael Rein said the interest in the mission was “a lot more than the norm.”

But those who could log on to the webcast saw the streaming video cut off 17 minutes into the mission, adding to the mystery of the mission. United Launch Alliance said it could not continue coverage at the request of the Air Force.