The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is trying to make things quicker and cheaper in the realm of space launch. Just this July, DARPA awarded three lucky companies some prime contracts to help them with this feat: Boeing, Masten Space Systems, and Northrop Grumman. The DARPA program they have been contracted to work on is Phase 1 of the Experimental Spaceplane (XS) -1 program.
The agency intends to accomplish their goal by having the selected companies develop a demonstration vehicle, likely reusable, which would approach a sub-orbital apogee and deliver satellite payloads into low earth orbit (LEO). Logically, all three prime companies have partnered with “New Space” companies: Northrop Grumman with Virgin Galactic; Masten with XCOR Aerospace; and Boeing with Blue Origin. Such partnerships make sense, because two of the three New Space companies are working on sub-orbital spaceplane systems already.
Uncle Sam Isn’t the Only One in the Spaceplane Business
XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic are both working on different version of spaceplanes that are already envisioned to substantially reduce the costs of satellite launches into LEO. Virgin Galactic is still testing its SpaceShipTwo, a rocket-plane carried high into the atmosphere by a traditionally powered aircraft that Virgin Galactic calls a “mothership.” At critical altitude, the rocket-plane drops from the mothership and rockets to a maximum-suborbital altitude of 68 miles above the Earth. At least, that’s what they intend to do with SpaceShipTwo. LauncherOne may not have limitations that a manned craft like SpaceShipTwo might face.
XCOR Aerospace’s spaceplane, the Lynx, is slightly different. It’s also rocket-powered, but will take-off and land like an airplane. Another difference: it doesn’t look like they’ve even test-flown their first generation spaceplane, the Lynx I, yet. It will reach a sub-orbital apogee of about 64 miles above the Earth.
Blue Origin is working on something slightly different: a reusable crew capsule and propulsion module. But their website doesn’t really give too much more information about maximum altitude, nor any real timeline, so Boeing might be the losing partner here. Unless Blue Origin is making such quick progress that they are unable to update their site quickly enough.
None of the New Space spacecraft can lift the minimum 3,000 lb. weight requirement listed in DARPA’s wish-list. But it seems that at least Northrop Grumman and Masten have significant head starts with their partners. And, oddly enough, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s reusable spaceplane that’s launched on top of a rocket, the Dream Chaser, is nowhere to be seen in DARPA’s efforts.
Will DARPA’s efforts pay off? After all, SpaceX is working on their own reusable rocket, with the aim of making access to space cheaper than their current advertised cheapest launch price of $61 million. And if cheaper is the goal, especially for flexible and responsive efforts, there’s always FireFly’s Alpha rocket. If competition is good, then DARPA might be able to compare SpaceX’s and FireFly’s efforts to their own, and see what kind of return they’re getting.