Spaceflight Insider

Experimental Spaceplane program enters Phase 2


Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman

While companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin continue to grab headlines with their reusable booster programs, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that their Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program has entered its second phase—fabricating an experimental vehicle.

DARPA started the project in 2013 with the goal of demonstrating the technology needed to build and fly an uncrewed reusable aircraft in a suborbital trajectory before deploying an expendable upper stage to send payload to orbit. Initially, that cargo would weigh as much as 900 pounds (408 kilograms), but the ultimate goal is to send 3,000 pounds (1,360 kilograms) or more to orbit with a larger upper stage. This system would need to demonstrate an ability to fly 10 times in a 10-day period for less than $5 million per launch. It is hoped the first launch of the system will occur by 2020.

Phase 1 was geared toward evaluating the technical feasibility and concepts for achieving this goal. In 2014, DARPA awarded prime contracts to three company teams: The Boeing Company with Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems with XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman Corporation with Virgin Galactic.

According to a report by, in 2014, Phase 1 saw about $4 million awarded to the Boeing and Northrop Grumman teams, while Masten was awarded just under $3 million. About a year later, the three companies were awarded more money: $6.5 million each.

Phase 2 will be open to other companies that wish to solicit, not just those in Phase 1, with the expectation that a single contract will be awarded.

“During Phase 1 of the XS-program, the space industry has evolved rapidly and we intend to take advantage of multiple impressive technological and commercial advances,” Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager, said in a news release. “We intend to leverage those advances along with our Phase 1 progress to break the cycle of escalating [Department of Defense] space system launch costs, catalyze lower-cost satellite architectures, and prove that routine and responsive access to space can be achieved at costs an order of magnitude lower than with today’s systems.”

According to DARPA, the program is structured to directly transition any successful technology to the industrial and commercial launch sectors. The goal is to enable new launch markets and sale of launch services back to the U.S. government at much lower costs and in more rapid time frames than today.

The XS-1 Phase 2 Proposers’ Day be April 29 in Arlington, Virginia, according to Federal Business Opportunities. There, information will be provided to companies that will potentially give a proposal. The goal is to select the single contractor by early 2017.

Video courtesy of DARPA


Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.

Reader Comments

I feel that it may cost more than a (much simpler) small rocket with reusable 1st stage

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