Mysterious robot shuttle blasting into space next month

Just when we were thinking the United States was getting out of the space shuttle business, here comes the Air Force launching a semi-secret military space plane next month. The unmanned Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), a robotic craft otherwise known as X37B — was built at a Boeing Phantom Works facility in Southern California. The 29-foot long vehicle is set for liftoff at 10PM on April 19.

The plane's development has been underway since 1999, but the mystery revolves around what payload will be stowed inside this unmanned vehicle on a mission that could last up to 270 days. According to the Air Force, the vehicle's objectives include "space experimentation, risk reduction and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies." Thanks for making that clear, Captain PR, USAF.

The 11,000-pound vehicle will be nestled inside the nosecone atop an Atlas 5 rocket. After its classified mission is complete, it'll autonomously reenter the atmosphere and land on the 15,000 foot long runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

An unmanned space plane? Telepresence technologies are getting so good, maybe this makes more sense than a dangerous shuttle full of seven fragile human beings.