Air Force prepares test flight for next generation shuttle

(NBC) - Just when the United States is about to retire its space shuttles, the Air Force has built a new one.

The new shuttle is a project that has been kept quiet, but it's about to make a lot of noise when it launches from Cape Canaveral on Thursday.

The new shuttle cannot carry astronauts, and it doesn't have a name, such as Atlantis or Discovery. It�s known only as the Orbital Test Vehicle or X-37.

The Air Force has quietly practiced landing it on a remote lake bed in the California desert, but now it is time to launch it.

The X-37 launches vertically atop an Atlas rocket inside its nose cone. It�s now at Launch Pad 41 ready for launch on Thursday at 7:52 p.m. EDT.

The X-37 was originally a NASA project, intended to launch inside the original space shuttles, and was supposed to lead to advanced versions that could carry astronauts.

But government officials said they decided not to go through with it as a NASA project, and it was handed over to the Air Force, which will use it for research in space and possibly for classified purposes.

When the original space shuttles are retired later this year, the U.S. will have no way to launch its own astronauts.

At a glance, the X-37 may look like it could pick up where the old space shuttles leave off. But, in fact, it could take years of major modifications to give the X-37 the capability to carry a crew.

The Air Force is not discussing the subject, and it is not saying when the X-37 will land after its first launch.

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