NASA ready to test new "mini" shuttle

(NBC) - The U.S. has built a brand new space shuttle, and it's ready to launch next month.

It's called the X-37B/OTV. It's about one-fourth the size of the space shuttle, and it was originally intended to carry six astronauts.

Now inside the hangar at Astrotech in Titusville, it's ready to launch into space but without a crew.

The mini-shuttle, referred to as X-37, was quietly developed at Boeing's Phantom Works.

NASA once intended to launch the X-37 in the back of the space shuttle and have astronauts fly it home. It's had landing tests in California.

Mounted on an Atlas rocket, it would have been a cheaper way to get people to and from the space station -- just what America's looking for now that the space shuttle is being retired.

But the X-37 project was handed over to the Air Force a few years ago, and the new spaceplane was built with no capability to carry a crew.

The Air Force said it will be used for research on reusable space vehicle technologies. Until now, the only reason to have a reusable space vehicle was to bring people home. Typically, not much else is brought back on the shuttle.

The Air Force won't say more about the X-37 except that it is scheduled to launch next month from Cape Canaveral.

It's unknown if the X-37 could be converted into a crew-carrying spaceship, a way for America to launch its own astronauts. He said the idea should make next month's launch -- when the new shuttle is carried in the nose cone of a rocket -- very interesting.

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