It was just after 5 a.m. when her house rumbled awake. Her hens squawked. Her cats scattered. Her dogs hid under the covers. And Nancy Planeta sat straight up in bed, wondering: What was that sound?
People across Florida were awoken early Saturday morning to the sound of the X-37B returning to Earth after a record-breaking 908 days in orbit.
Reports of a sonic boom were widespread, from Titusville to Tampa, as the U.S. Space Force autonomous vehicle touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County at 5:22 a.m.
Planeta, who is 52 and lives in northern Pasco County, scoured Facebook and local news sites for answers in an early morning haze. Garbage dumpster collection? Gunshots? Exercises at MacDill? Her father worked with the Air Force, she said, so once she had recovered from the initial shock, she was quick to recognize the boom as sonic. Her animals took longer to gather themselves.
“They’re used to calm country life,” she said Sunday morning.
In a statement, Boeing, which built the X-37B, said the craft has now flown more than 1.3 billion miles, spending 3,774 days in space while conducting experiments for the government and its partners.
One experiment, in partnership with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, involved converting solar power into microwave energy. Another aimed to test the durability of certain materials exposed to space conditions to ultimately improve the precision of space environment models.
“This mission highlights the Space Force’s focus on collaboration in space exploration and expanding low-cost access to space for our partners, within and outside of the Department of the Air Force,” U.S Space Force General and Chief of Space Operations Chance Saltzman said in a statement.
The X-37B was developed by NASA as a test-bed for future spacecraft. Today, it is jointly operated by the Space Force and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. The U.S. Space Force is thought to own two X-37B vehicles, which measure 29 feet from nose to tail, falling somewhere between a pickup truck and a school bus in length.
The X-37B launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on May 17, 2020, when Donald Trump was president — about two months after the World Heath Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Its sixth mission was four months longer than any previous X-37B flight.
“This return further underscores the capabilities of Space Florida’s Launch and Landing Facility that are ideal for both Department of Defense and commercial missions alike,” Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace finance and development authority, said in a statement.
In Bithlo, located in Orange County about 30 miles west of the Kennedy Space Center, Carlos and Johana Alfonso captured the boom on their doorbell camera.
“The walls shook, the glass shook, the whole house shook,” said Johana, 55.
They ventured outside after being jolted awake, and said a strange, sulfur-smelling fog hung in the air.
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On the Gulf Coast, Peter Anderson also woke to the strange sound rumbling through the still-dark sky.
“Was I imagining it?” the 37-year-old Sarasota resident recalled thinking.
Unable to fall back asleep, he said he pulled out his phone, opened Twitter and scrolled through online chatter about the X-37B. He follows space developments loosely, so had heard of the plane, but had no idea its nearly 30-month-long orbit was coming to a close.
“It would be nice if we were made aware of these things,” he said.