With most of the focus on NASA’s development of the Orion crew capsule, it’s worth noting the U.S. government is also looking to create a new reusable space plane in the same vein as the space shuttle — but (hopefully) a whole lot better.
Space.com reports that Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) top funded project this year is the development of an experimental spaceplane designed to make “frequent trips” to orbit. The development firm asked the Pentagon for $50 million in the 2017 budget to continue development the Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1), after a $30 million request last fiscal year.
Put simply, the XS-1 is intended to be a reusable first stage that could carry an expendable upper stage into orbit. The current design would hopefully be able to lift a payload just under 4,000 pounds (1,800 kilograms) into orbit, and would be versatile enough to fly 10 trips in as many days. The best part: Each launch should cost less than $5 million, which is fairly cheap by modern launch standards.
Teams from Boeing and Blue Origin; Masten Space Systems and XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman and Virgin Galactic are all working on the project to nail the right design. No word on when that development list might get whittled down, though budget documents indicate DARPA wants to coordinate a critical design review in fiscal year 2017.