US military awards contracts to design reusable spaceplane

By on Thursday, July 17th, 2014

The U.S. military said Tuesday it has awarded contracts to three companies to design an experimental spaceplane conceived as a reusable, unmanned booster with costs, operation and reliability similar to modern aircraft.

The companies selected to develop the XS-1 spaceplane are Boeing, working with Blue Origin; Masten Space Systems, working with XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman, working with Virgin Galactic, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said in a statement.

“We chose performers who could prudently integrate existing and up-and-coming technologies and operations, while making XS-1 as reliable, easy-to-use and cost-effective as possible,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA’s spaceplane program manager. “We’re eager to see how their initial designs envision making spaceflight commonplace – – with all the potential military, civilian and commercial benefits that capability would provide.”

The XS-1 program aims to develop a fully-reusable unmanned vehicle that would provide aircraft-like access to space and deploy small satellites to orbit faster and more affordably using expendable upper stages.

According to the DARPA, the XS-1’s first stage will fly to a suborbital altitude at hypersonic speeds and then return to earth, land and be prepared for the next flight. One or more expendable upper stages will separate and deploy a satellite into low-Earth orbit.

Key XS-1 technical goals include flying 10 times in 10 days, flying to Mach 10+ at least once and launching 3,000- to 5,000- pound (1,361 to 2,268 kilograms) payloads to orbit for less than 5 million U.S. dollars per flight.

In Phase 1 of XS-1, the selected companies will develop a demonstration vehicle, conduct critical risk reduction of core component technologies and processes, and develop a technology maturation plan for a flight test of XS-1 system capabilities. The agency will hold a Phase 2 competition next year for the follow-on production order to build the vehicle and conduct demonstration flights.

Boeing said in a separate statement that the company’s preliminary XS-1 design contract is worth 4 million U.S. dollars and that it will focus its work on the XS-1’s reusable first stage.

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