DARPA Chooses Boeing to Build New Prototype Spaceplane

The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has just announced its selection for designing the agency’s new Experimental Spaceplane, the XS-1. The department is enlisting Boeing to design and build this new class of hypersonic aircraft with the goal of launching to low Earth orbit in a matter of days, not years.

According to DARPA program manager, Jess Sponable, “The XS-1 would be neither a traditional airplane nor a conventional launch vehicle but rather a combination of the two, with the goal of lowering launch costs by a factor of ten and replacing today’s frustratingly long wait time with launch on demand. We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3 — fabrication and flight.”

Essentially, then, the XS-1 will be aimed at offering just short-notice, low-cost access to [low-orbit] space—by way of aircraft, of course—which combines all the best things that spacecraft with a jet engine can provide. DARPA spokesman Jared Adams also comments, “The reusable first stage … would be prepared for the next flight, potentially within hours,” adding that the goal for the XS-1 program is to fly 10 flights within 10 consecutive days.

Phase 1 of this project saw prime contracts awarded to three companies who had pitched early concepts to work with commercial launch providers. Boeing paired with Blue Origin which, of course, beat out the other two potential pairings of Masten Space System with XCOR Aerospace and Northrop Grumman teaming up with Virgin Galactic.

Right now, Boeing is evaluating launch sites to get into Phase 2. During this phase, Boeing will design, construct, and then eventually test the technology. Initially, this calls for the firing of the vehicle’s engine on the ground (the 10 tests in 10 days aspect) to demonstrate the readiness of the propulsion mechanics. Phase 3, then, has objectives to run at least a dozen actual test flights; these are presently scheduled for 2020.

Addressing the opportunity this project creates, DARPA director of the Tactical Technology Office, Brad Tousley comments, “Demonstration of aircraft-like, on-demand, and routine access to space is important for meeting critical Defense Department needs and could help open the door to a range of next-generation commercial opportunities.”