Warning: Sci-fi refernces ahead. Non-Trekkies may want to consult a glossary.

According to the future history from Star Trek, Zefram Cochrane didn't perform the first "warp" spaceflight until 2063. Sadly, I suspect that few of my readers (and, almost certainly, Yours Fooly) will be around when commercial space routes to Alpha Centauri first begin. The good news, though, is that Boeing's (NYSE: BA) making good use of the 53 years it's been allotted to "make it so" ("it" being honest-to-goodness space travel). 

According to multiple sources, Boeing just wrapped up a seven-month mission in which its ultra-secret X-37B robotic space plane spent its time tooling around above Earth's atmosphere. If you've never heard the phrase "X-37B" before, or are tempted to shout "Bingo!" upon hearing it, that's no surprise. Turns out this was the plane's maiden flight. It's never been seen before by non-Boeing human eyes -- but I bet you'll be seeing more of it in the future.

Speculated to function as a mobile, orbital spy platform, the X-37B resembles a scaled-down version of the NASA space shuttle, now slated for retirement. It's a bit smaller than the spaceplane Orbital Sciences (NYSE: ORB) and Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC) are collaborating on today. But since it doesn't carry humans (did I mention this is a Borg vessel?), it has more room for things Orbital is going to have to leave off its design -- accessories like … engines.

As a result, whereas Orbital's plane is basically a re-entry vehicle for returning International Space Station crew members to Earth, Boeing's plane is capable of doing the whole round trip -- albeit, sans passengers. Now, most folks will probably see X-37B as a sort of next-gen spy satellite, or perhaps a robotic supply shuttle, capable of keeping space station cupboards well stocked with Pop Tarts and Tang.

Forward-thinking Fools, however, look at this spaceplane and see the possibilities: a plane that can take off from Earth, fly remotely, and land somewhere other than Earth, then take off and come back home again -- niggling details such as fuel capacity and wingspan-to-atmospheric density ratios permitting, of course.

Foolish takeaway
In short, Boeing has just proved the concept the interplanetary space travel. Unmanned, admittedly. Accidentally, perhaps. But proved it nonetheless. So although I don't expect to live to see summers on Alpha Centauri, I Fool-y expect to see the first voyage from the Green Hills of Earth to the Red Planet and back again. Bon voyage, Boeing!

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