Boeing wins DARPA contract to build reusable first stage spaceplane


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Capitalism in space: DARPA has selected Boeing to build its XS-1 spaceplane concept, a reusable first stage that would launch vertically and land on a runway.

Boeing will develop its “Phantom Express” vehicle for phases 2 and 3 of DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program, which has the goal of performing 10 flights in 10 days to demonstrate responsive and low-cost launch. Phase 2 will cover development of the vehicle and ground tests though 2019, with a series of 12 to 15 test flights planned for phase 3 in 2020.

DARPA spokesman Rick Weiss said the value of the award to Boeing is $146 million. The award is structured as a public-private partnership, with Boeing also contributing to the overall cost of the program, but Boeing declined to disclose its contribution. “As it’s a competitive market, we do not plan to disclose our investment,” Boeing Phantom Works spokeswoman Cheryl Sampson said. “We are making a significant commitment to help solve an enduring challenge to reduce the cost of space access.”

It makes sense that Boeing won the contract, since that company also built the X-37B and knows how to do this. Moreover, with this contract it appears that DARPA is following in the footsteps of NASA initial cargo and crew commercial contracts, where the companies were required to commit some of their own capital for development, the costs were kept low, and the resulting spacecraft belonged to the company to market to the launch industry.

In this case, Boeing is going to have a first stage that it can combine with many other available upper stages to produce a rocket that can compete both with SpaceX and Blue Origin.

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11 comments

  • pzatchok

    Another use for SSME space shuttle main engines with “legacy flight experience” as they say.

  • PeterF

    Perhaps they could build something along the lines of an enlarged X-15? Just a first stage booster with stubby wings and skids that extend for landing. It would obviously require an internal frame to prevent it from crumpling as it touched down. The extra mass of the frame would unfortunately cut down on the on-orbit mass unless they can supercharge the engines. But I’m sure they are already thinking of this…

  • wodun

    “We selected the Aerojet Rocketdyne engine as it offers a flight proven, reusable engine to meet the DARPA mission requirements,” Sampson said.

    Hanging in there.

  • Wodun: This is good news. Aerojet Rocketdyne will not be paid the gazillions of dollars for this engine that it got when it built it for NASA. Instead, this whole spacecraft will be designed for inexpensive re-usability.

    In fact, think about it. Boeing is building a reusable first stage launch vehicle that it can market, not to satellite companies, but to launch companies. ULA and Arianespace are going to hard pressed to compete with SpaceX and Blue Origin with their new rockets, none of which have full first stage re-usability. Boeing can offer them that.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Potential commercialization of Phantom Express looks pretty iffy to me. There are apparently only enough “classic” engine parts to assemble one or two engines. There is no extant supply chain through which to obtain new-production spares.

    These are likely to be needed on a regular basis as the designated engine seems to be some sort of precursor to the Shuttle’s RS-25. The early RS-25’s weren’t exactly famous for longevity in service; they had to be torn down and rebuilt after every mission. That isn’t going to work if once-per-day turnaround is needed for 10 successive days as the XS-1 contract specifies.

    Perhaps the intent is for Phantom Express to incorporate the composite structure technology of X-37B, keeping PE light enough to allow these Lazarus engines to be run no harder than maybe 90 or 95% of full-throttle. That’s strictly speculation and might not work in any case.

    I want to see this thing fly, but I’m no longer at all optimistic that it will lead to anything consequential over the long term. The design, as announced, just seems to incorporate too much of the short-term, just-do-the-minimum-needed-to-get-by, close-enough-for-government-work, grab-the-money-and-run thinking that seems endemic among all the legacy aerospace majors these days. There is a pervasive sense that all are ducking or finessing the hard parts to the greatest extent they can get away with.

    This stands in sharp contrast to SpaceX and Blue Origin which seem unafraid of the hard parts and, in fact, tend to wade right into those at the earliest possible moment. Unless it somehow falls into the hands of some organization other than Boeing, I just don’t see Phantom Express being more than a footnote in launcher development history.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “In fact, think about it. Boeing is building a reusable first stage launch vehicle that it can market, not to satellite companies, but to launch companies.

    A business model similar to the airline business. Unlike today’s rocket companies, the companies that manufacture airliners are not the companies that run the airlines but instead sell to those companies. There is an efficiency to that business model, as the airline companies do not have to expend the money and resources to design their own planes, and each airplane design can sell thousands of units rather than just enough for the one airline. This allows for more airline companies to compete with each other by using planes that cost less per plane, resulting in even lower prices and/or better service for the customers. Various companies fill different niches — niches for the desired planes and niches for the desired passenger services.

    Once launch vehicles are reusable and operate more like airlines do (e.g. one day or one week turnaround), then this model makes a lot of sense for launch service companies, too.

    At least, that is what I think.

    Whether Phantom Express starts this business model is yet to be seen, but at least the concept is being tried. If it does not work, as Dick Eagleson fears and as the reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) of the 1990s didn’t, then it will at least provide us with valuable lessons for the next time around, as the RLVs of the 1990s did for SpaceX and Blue Origin (and maybe for Reaction Engines and their Skylon, too).

    I was unaware that the purpose of Phantom Express is to produce a production rocket as opposed to providing a proof of concept of the rapid turnaround RLV rocket.
    http://www.boeing.com/space/phantom-express/index.page
    Boeing and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are collaborating to design, build and test a technology demonstration vehicle for the agency’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program.

    The value of footnotes is that they preserve and present information that is valuable enough to be referenced as footnotes.

  • wayne

    Edward-
    good stuff.

    Interesting input by all.

    I’m embarrassed to admit, until SpaceX came along, I sorta naively ass-umed “NASA” actually owned all the rockets & associated hardware they utilized, and wasn’t “renting it,” as it were, loosely.

    Tangentially– with reference to the SLS money-pit Project– when all is said & done (if ever), will NASA actually own the thing outright?

  • Wayne wrote, “Until SpaceX came along, I sorta naively ass-umed “NASA” actually owned all the rockets & associated hardware they utilized.”

    Your assumption was mostly correct. NASA owned the shuttle, which from 1979 to 1986 was the only launch service allowed in the U.S. For many years after that most of the rockets used by the government were assembled by the government, buying different stages from different contractors. Private launch companies did exist (Martin Marietta, Lockheed, Boeing, Orbital Sciences), but they were so dependent on government contracts and being led by that government that they made little effort to compete or innovate.

  • Edward

    wayne,
    The privatization of launch companies and the ownership of the rockets by these companies is the new paradigm that is so exciting, these days. It is why the proposed business model can look like the airline business rather than the American defense contractor business.

    NASA was not the only owner. The Air Force owned many of the US’s rockets, too. Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket may have been the first non-governmental US launch rocket.

  • wayne

    Mr. Z– thank you.

    totally Friday tangential–
    (very cool but short)

    -James Burke demonstrates Apollo Saturn emergency precautions
    (“Blast Escape Room”)
    https://youtu.be/pLiAwSKkm6
    (2:14)

    Does this room, still exist?
    Do we still do this sorta safety ‘thing?? (I don’t recall ever seeing any escape-tube leading to the ‘bunker,’ for any Space Shuttle launches.)

  • wayne

    Edward-
    thank you.
    (had nitrous at the dentist this morning, still totally outa’ my mind!)

    Referencing Space Shuttle emergency escape— I’m seeing a wire-basket escape system. very cool. (How did I ever miss this?)
    Forgive my ignorance (or my memory) I though I had kept up better on the Space Shuttle, although I distinctly recall television did not often cover launches live very often. (until one blew up)

    Just an interested-amateur, but I’m convinced Big Media coverage of “space” in general has been going downhill since 1969. (along with our educational system)
    Without the internet, we’d never see anything on Space, just ‘Russia, Russia, Russia,” Marcia.
    And while I do support a minimum Federal role in Space, I’m totally convinced the Big Guys are Crony’s, in large measure. It’s unavoidable under the current scheme, and we can’t afford it.

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