WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is gearing up to award $14 million next year to get industry started on a concept for a reusable spaceplane that could debut in 2018 and ultimately fly 10 times in 10 days to boost payloads into low Earth orbit for less than $5 million a launch, according to a call for proposals DARPA posted Nov. 12.

The program, known as the Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1, aims to develop a reusable first stage — DARPA is open to winged and nonwinged designs — that could carry an expendable upper stage capable of placing payloads weighing up to 1,800 kilograms into orbit. The XS-1 program has a lot in common with the Reusable Booster System Pathfinder program the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) shut down last year, including key personnel; XS-1’s program manager, Jess Sponable, was chief engineer for the AFRL program before rejoining DARPA last December.

DARPA announced the XS-1 project in September, promising to release a Broad Agency Announcement come fall. Proposals are due in January. The agency plans to award at least one contract for a 13-month effort to develop a demonstration concept and a preliminary design review is targeted for the second quarter of 2015. DARPA has budgeted $140 million for a possible second-phase effort focused on final design and integration.

More than 100 representatives attended an industry day event in Arlington, Va., Nov. 6.

In a question-and-answer session at the industry day, DARPA officials said they will consider “manned, optionally manned, or unmanned concepts” for the plane.

DARPA’s XS-1 solicitation comes at a time when the Air Force is searching for any way it can to keep costs down.

“In an era of declining budgets and proliferating foreign threats to U.S. air and space assets the need for responsive, affordable access to space is increasingly critical,” the announcement said.

The U.S. government is expected to spend nearly $44 billion on launch costs over the next five years, according to a Government Accountability Office report from September, and Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has said the service’s space program cannot continue with the status quo.

“Technologies derived from the XS-1 program will enable routine space launch capabilities with aircraft-like cost, operability and reliability,” DARPA’s announcement reads. “The long-term intent is for XS-1 technologies to be transitioned to support not only next-generation launch for Government and commercial customers, but also global reach hypersonic and space access aircraft.” 

Specifically, launching a satellite to low Earth orbit for less than $5 million would mean the Air Force was spending 10 times less than it does with the Minotaur 4, the documents said. That figure would include fuel, launch labor costs and the price of the upper stage.

Additionally, the ability to fly to Mach 10 would reduce the size and cost of the expendable upper stage, the documents said.

“Delivering a launch capability for responsive payloads will provide an immediate operational benefit to military, civil, and commercial stakeholders,” the announcement said.

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...