The DARPA XS-1 will be a reusable spaceplane/booster to deliver small satellites into orbit for the U.S. Military. The XS-1 is to directly replace the "first stage" of a multistage rocket that will be capable of flying at hypersonic speed at suborbital altitude, enabling one or more expendable upper stages to separate and deploy a payload into low Earth orbit. The XS-1 would then return to Earth, where it could be serviced fast enough to repeat the process at least once every 24 hours.
The XS-1 program followed several previous failed attempts to develop a reusable space launch vehicle. The X-30 in the 1980s and X-33 VentureStar in the 1990s never flew due to immature technologies. DARPA's last attempt was the Responsive Access, Small Cargo, Affordable Launch (RASCAL) program in the early 2000s with the goal of placing 300 lb (140 kg) payloads in orbit for less than $750,000.
The XS-1 program was announced in November 2013 at a DARPA industry day. DARPA stated that the XS-1 was more feasible due to better technologies, including light and low-cost composite airframe and tank structures, durable thermal protection, reusable and affordable propulsion, and aircraft-like health management systems. Jess Sponable, the XS-1 program manager, spoke on February 5, 2014 at NASA's Future In-Space Operations group, stating, "The vision here is to break the cycle of escalating space system costs, enable routine space access and hypersonic vehicles."
Three companies were awarded contracts by July 2014 to design a demonstration vehicle. The selected companies were Boeing with Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems with XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman with Virgin Galactic. Unlike other DARPA programs that were handed off to parts of the United States military once proven successful, this initiative was designed from the start to be a direct partnership between the agency and industry. In August 2015, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Masten Space Systems all received additional funding from DARPA to continue their XS-1 design concepts for Phase 1B of the program. The first XS-1 orbital mission could occur as early as 2020.
The goals of the program as of September 2013[update] were: The space plane must carry a 3,000–5,000 lb (1,400–2,300 kg) payload to low Earth orbit for less than a cost of US$5 million per flight, at a rate of 10 or more flights per year; currently, launching that type of payload requires using an Orbital Sciences Corporation Minotaur IV expendable booster, priced at $55 million once per year.
- hypersonic flight to Mach 10 (12,250 km/h) or higher
- fast one-day turnaround time, including flying 10 times in 10 days
- a 1,800 kilograms (4,000 lb) payload on a trajectory to orbit
- launch cost less than 1/10 that of current launch systems, approximately US$5 million per flight
- unmanned vehicle
- utilize a reusable first stage booster to fly at hypersonic speeds to a suborbital altitude, coupled with one or more expendable upper stages that would separate and deploy a satellite
The Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, and Masten Space Systems have Phase 1 conceptual design contracts.
Boeing used its aircraft, spacecraft, and autonomous systems experience to work with its team including Blue Origin. Boeing's design would allow the autonomous booster to carry the second stage and payload to high altitude and deploy them into space. The booster would then return to Earth, where it could be quickly prepared for the next flight by applying operation and maintenance principles similar to modern aircraft, according to Will Hampton, Boeing XS-1 program manager. Drawing on their other innovative technologies, Boeing intends to provide a concept that uses efficient, streamlined ground infrastructure and improves the turnaround time to re-launch this spacecraft for subsequent missions.
Northrop Grumman used its aircraft, spacecraft, and autonomous systems experience to work with its team consisting of Scaled Composites to lead fabrication and assembly, and Virgin Galactic to head commercial spaceplane operations and transition; Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites both worked on the SpaceShip Two, the world's only commercial spaceline. The team also leveraged technologies developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to give the government "return on those investments." Their concept included a clean-pad launch using a transporter erector launcher with minimal infrastructure and ground crews, highly autonomous flight operations, and horizontal landing and recovery on standard runways.
Masten Space Systems had experience in rapid launchings of space vehicles, with their Xombie, Xoie, and Xaero vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) designs having already met or exceeded the 10 flights in 10 days objective set by the program. Although the company consists of fewer than 20 employees and is headquartered in a small building at the Mojave Air and Space Port, they have spent years flying various small VTVL systems on short hops at the spaceport, serving as test beds for guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) systems designed to safely land spacecraft on the Moon and potentially other planets. Their concept showed a VTVL system taking off vertically from a launch pad with wings and a tail fin. Masten Space Systems partnered with XCOR Aerospace, which would have provided the propulsion system.
- Airborne Launch Assist Space Access
- Boeing X-37
- Boeing X-51
- DARPA Falcon Project
- NASA X-43
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- DARPA Awards $20 Million for Continued Development of a Military Space Plane - Defense-Update.com, 8 August 2015
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- Northrop Grumman Developing XS-1 Spaceplane For DARPA - Spacedaily.com, 20 August 2014
- DARPA issues first-phase solicitation for XS-1 hypersonic space plane for deploying satellites - Militaryaerospace.com, 15 November 2013
- Masten Space Systems Aims High on XS-1 Military Space Plane Project - Space.com, 26 August 2014