DARPA, Industry Study How To Commercialize Experimental Spaceplane

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WASHINGTON — As technical work ramps up on an experimental military spaceplane program, government and industry are studying how to eventually commercialize the vehicle, an effort that includes chartering a study by a space advocacy organization. 

The Experimental Spaceplane (XS)-1 program by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency seeks to develop a reusable first stage that, combined with an expendable upper stage, could place payloads of as many as 2,250 kilograms into orbit for less than $5 million per launch. DARPA awarded Phase One study contracts in July to Boeing, Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman. 

“We would like to see this program transitioned to the commercial sector,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA XS-1 program manager, in a presentation at a Sept. 16 meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) systems working group here. “We are looking to industry to define a transition path in the future.” 

Sponable said he believes there will be significant demand for the XS-1 from both industry and government, given its projected low launch costs and high flight rates. “If we could really introduce this affordable low-cost launch capability, you’re going to see people introduce next-generation broadband systems,” he said, citing one example of a potential XS-1 launch customer. 

With such demand, he argued that it makes the most sense to have the XS-1 operated by a company, which then sells launch services to NASA, the Defense Department and commercial customers. “If that sounds crazy, well, it’s not,” he said, drawing an analogy to the development of expendable launch systems in previous decades. The government invested in those systems “and industry took that technology and sold it back to us on a mission-by-mission basis.” 

To help determine the best way to hand over the XS-1 to the commercial sector, Sponable said he has commissioned “a small study effort” from the Space Frontier Foundation, a space advocacy organization that has championed commercial space endeavors and initiatives to reduce the cost of space access. 

That project included a closed-door workshop held Sept. 15 at FAA headquarters here. “In pursuit of a successful commercial transition strategy, the workshop guided an exploration of the budgetary, technical, programmatic and application components of the XS-1 program,” Kellie Gerardi, Space Frontier Foundation program manager for the workshop, said in a Sept. 24 interview. 

Gerardi said workshop attendance included both companies working on XS-1 concepts and potential customers of the vehicle. Meeting attendance was restricted given the limited size of the meeting room and a nonattribution policy for the overall study. “We wanted to create an environment where we can freely explore every aspect of a commercial transition strategy,” she said. 

A second workshop, which will build on the discussion of the first, is scheduled for Oct. 17 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a day after the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight there. Gerardi said the Space Frontier Foundation will deliver to DARPA a final report with its recommendations on a commercial transition strategy in the first quarter of 2015. 

Those recommendations will be integrated into DARPA’s plans for the XS-1 once the Phase One contracts end next year. 

“I’m trying to make this thing as relevant to the commercial sector as I can,” Sponable said.

 

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeff_foust


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