Hoping to create a “new paradigm” in space operations, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is moving ahead with developing a spaceplane that could fly almost as affordably and routinely as an aircraft.

The agency announced July 15 that its XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane program has awarded preliminary design contracts to three companies: Boeing, $4 million; Masten Space Systems, $3 million; and Northrop Grumman, $3.9 million. Boeing’s team includes Blue Origin, while Masten Space Systems will work with XCOR Aerospace. Northrop Grumman’s team includes Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic.

“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, a program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “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 program aims to develop an unmanned vehicle that can deploy small satellites more quickly and at a less cost than today’s satellite launch systems, which “require scheduling years in advance” and “often cost hundreds of millions of dollars each,” DARPA said. A hypersonic, reusable first stage would fly to a suborbital altitude, where one or more expendable upper stages would separate and deploy a satellite into low-Earth orbit. The reusable first stage would then land on Earth to be prepared for its next flight.

“Key XS-1 technical goals include flying 10 times in 10 days, flying to Mach 10+ at least once and launching a representative small payload to orbit,” DARPA said. “The program also seeks to reduce the cost of access to space for 3,000- to 5,000-pound payloads to less than $5 million per flight.”

Boeing said it will “provide a concept that uses efficient, streamlined ground infrastructure and improves the turnaround time to relaunch this spacecraft for subsequent missions.” Northrop Grumman said its design will “bundle proven technologies that we developed during more than a decade of related projects for DARPA, NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments.” Masten had no immediate comment.

The XS-1 program is expected to hold a “Phase 2” competition in 2015 that will lead to the production and flight testing of a demonstration vehicle.

The DARPA contract news came less than a week after the Air Force formally launched a competition to build a new Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B). A Boeing-Lockheed Martin team and Northrop Grumman are vying to become the prime contractor, whose selection will be announced in spring 2015. The Air Force has said little publicly about the program, other than that it intends to buy 80 to 100 aircraft and hopes to begin fielding the new planes in the mid-2020s.

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Marc Selinger is a journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area. He can be reached at marc2255@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter at @marcselinger.