Boeing, DARPA To Design, Build, Test New Experimental Spaceplane

DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program seeks to build and fly the first of an entirely new class of hypersonic aircraft that would break the cycle of escalating launch costs and make possible a host of critical national security options. As the next step toward a future of routine, responsive, and low-cost space access, DARPA has awarded Phases 2 and 3 of the program to The Boeing Company. Image Credit: DARPA

May 24, 2017 – Boeing and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are collaborating to design, build and test a technology demonstration vehicle for the Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program.

Boeing will develop a reusable autonomous spaceplane, roughly the size of a business jet, which will take off vertically like a rocket and fly to hypersonic speeds. The vehicle will be launched with no external boosters, powered solely by self-contained cryogenic propellants.

Once the spaceplane – called Phantom Express – reaches the edge of space, the booster will release an expendable upper stage able to deploy a 3,000-pound satellite to polar orbit. The reusable first stage will then bank and return to Earth, landing horizontally like an aircraft, and be prepared for the next flight, potentially within hours.

“Phantom Express is designed to disrupt and transform the satellite launch process as we know it today, creating a new, on-demand space-launch capability that can be achieved more affordably and with less risk,” said Darryl Davis, president, Boeing Phantom Works.

The program aims to achieve a capability well out of reach today — launches to low Earth orbit in days, as compared to the months or years of preparation currently needed to get a single satellite on orbit.

“The XS-1 would be neither a traditional airplane nor a conventional launch vehicle but rather a combination of the two, with the goal of lowering launch costs by a factor of ten and replacing today’s frustratingly long wait time with launch on demand,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager. “We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3—fabrication and flight.”

The Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-22 engine, a version of the legacy Space Shuttle main engine, would power the spaceplane. It is designed to be reusable and operates using liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel.

Phantom Express would offer an advanced airframe design as well as third-generation thermal protection to create a vehicle capable of flying at high flight velocity, while carrying a smaller, more affordable expendable upper stage to achieve the mission objectives.

XS-1 Phase 2 includes design, construction, and testing of the technology demonstration vehicle through 2019. It calls for initially firing the vehicle’s engine on the ground 10 times in 10 days to demonstrate propulsion readiness for flight tests.

Phase 3 objectives include 12 to 15 flight tests, currently scheduled for 2020. After multiple shakedown flights to reduce risk, the XS-1 would aim to fly 10 times over 10 consecutive days, at first without payloads and at speeds as fast as Mach 5. Subsequent flights are planned to fly as fast as Mach 10, and deliver a demonstration payload between 900 pounds and 3,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.

Another goal of the program is to encourage the broader commercial launch sector to adopt useful XS-1 approaches, processes, and technologies that facilitate launch on demand and rapid turnaround—important military and commercial needs for the 21st century. Toward that goal, DARPA intends to release selected data from its Phase 2/3 tests and will provide to all interested commercial entities the relevant specs for potential payloads.

“We’re delighted to see this truly futuristic capability coming closer to reality,” said Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO), which oversees XS-1. “Demonstration of aircraft-like, on-demand, and routine access to space is important for meeting critical Defense Department needs and could help open the door to a range of next-generation commercial opportunities.”