WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded contracts to three companies to develop concepts for an experimental spaceplane capable of flying 10 times in 10 days, according to a July 15 DARPA press release.

The companies selected to develop the XS-1 spaceplane concepts are: Boeing, working with Blue Origin; Masten Space Systems working with XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman with Virgin Galactic. 

Each team received a contract worth approximately $4 million, sources said.

“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,” Jess Sponable, DARPA’s spaceplane program manager, said in a prepared statement. “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.”

In a press release issued shortly after DARPA’s announcement, Boeing said it would focus its work on a launch vehicle with a reusable first stage that would fly to Earth after each mission. 

“Our 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,” Will Hampton, Boeing’s XS-1 program manager, said in the company release.

Boeing’s concept will also focus on the ground infrastructure necessary for quick turnaround between flights, the release said. 

Boeing is working on a separate DARPA contract, worth as much as $104 million, to build and demonstrate a low-cost airborne launching system for small satellites known as Airborne Launch Assist Space Access. Those satellites would weigh up to 45 kilograms. The XS-1 spaceplane would carry significantly heavier payloads.

Northrop Grumman said it plans to leverage technologies developed for NASA and the Defense Department in its spaceplane concept. In a statement, the company said it would focus on “pragmatic reusability.” 

“Our concept keeps the fixed costs low by reusing those elements that can be recovered, refurbished and re-flown, providing reasonable fixed costs at a conservative mission tempo,” Lon Rains, a Northrop Grumman spokesman, said in a July 18 email. 

Northrop Grumman is also working with its Scaled Composites subsidiary of Mojave, California, on the project. Scaled Composites designed Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo tourism vehicle.

For the XS-1 spaceplane, DARPA intends to select a single concept by the end of 2015 to receive up to $140 million for a second- and third-round effort culminating in a 2018 orbital launch.

The XS-1 program aims to develop a reusable first stage that could carry an expendable upper stage capable of placing payloads weighing up to 1,800 kilograms into orbit. DARPA is looking for a spaceplane that could debut in 2018 and ultimately fly 10 times in 10 days and boost payloads into low Earth orbit for less than $5 million per launch. 

DARPA said the selected companies will evaluate the technical feasibility of a demonstration vehicle, conduct risk reduction activities of core technologies and develop a technology maturation plan for a flight test of system capabilities, the agency said.

Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN


DARPA Taps Masten for XS-1 Spaceplane Contract

DARPA Space Budget Increase Includes $27M for Spaceplane

DARPA’s XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane Call for Proposals Eyes a 2018 Liftoff

DARPA To Start Reusable Launch Vehicle Program

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...