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A close look at another government program to try to lower the cost to orbit.
The latest program is know as the Experimental Spaceplane — or XS-1. The objective “is to demonstrate a reusable first stage launch vehicle capable of carrying and deploying an upper stage that inserts 3,000 to 5,000 lb. payloads into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), designed for less than $5M per launch for an operational system.” The system has to be able to perform with aircraft-like operations. And demonstrate the ability to fly 10 times in 10 days. It needs to reach Mach 10 at least once. And provide the basis for next-generation launch services and “global reach hypersonic and space access aircraft.”
Forgive me if I am skeptical. Despite DARPA’s reasonable success (It helped make possible SpaceX’s Merlin engine), these government efforts generally fail because they are unattached to the prime reasons for lowering cost: competition and profits. Consider this very accurate historical summary in the article above:
In the era of bell bottoms and Richard Nixon, there was the space shuttle. When Ronald Reagan ruled the roost, all hope rested in the National Aerospace Plane. During the Bill Clinton era, there were the X-33 and Venture Star. In Barack Obama’s first term, the Air Force pursued its Reusable Booster System (RBS).
Five programs. One objective: to radically reduce the cost to orbit. More than $14 billion spent on development. And the result? A super expensive shuttle program. Four vehicles that never flew. And access to space just kept getting more expensive.
Only when every effort in the aerospace industry is focused on making itself more competitive will we see the kinds of technical advancements this new DARPA program wishes to achieve.