The folks at NASA might still be trying to figure out their next move, but the U.S. military is moving full speed ahead with plans to develop a cheaper, more effective robotic space plane capable of launching payloads into orbit. So, you got any ideas?
To that end, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has already awarded three initial design contracts for the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane Project to contractors Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Masten Space Systems.
In a statement announcing the initiative, DARPA program manager Jess Sponable said he hopes the effort will spur development for some more affordable options to get humanity (and our technology) into space. Space reports the goal is to make spaceflight more affordable and routine, with a craft that can function at a cost of $5 million per flight:
“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. 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.”
Officials say the vehicle will likely take advantage of a reusable first stage, along with one or more expendable upper stages. The reusable first stage will fly to suborbital space at hypersonic speeds, then return to Earth, while the upper stage will separate and release the payload into low-Earth orbit.
As everyone from NASA to private space companies try to figure out exactly what mode of transportation will get us into space over the next few decades, the space plane concept holds a lot of potential. We can’t wait to see what they come up with.