Phase 2 begins in DARPA spaceplane program

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The competition heats up: DARPA is about to start asking for proposals for the second phase of its XS-1 spaceplane program.

In Phase 1 of XS-1, DARPA sought to evaluate the technical feasibility and methods for achieving the program’s goals. To achieve that, it awarded prime contracts to three companies, each working in concert with a commercial launch provider: The Boeing Company (working with Blue Origin, LLC); Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace); and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Virgin Galactic). Phases 2 and 3 will be competed as a full and open Program Solicitation mandating an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreement with the expectation of a single resulting award. Cost share is expected.

The primary goal is to build a vehicle that can fly ten times in ten days and put a small satellite into orbit.


  • pzatchok

    Here is a question.

    Why the space plane concept? Especially for the government.

    You do not need a space plane to launch and insert into orbit a payload or satellite. Its just not needed and added expense and weight.

    Just like the old space shuttle. It was never needed to lift objects to space but was instead needed to recover them from space.

    So why this mini-shuttle?

    Unless the eventual plan is for are a manned usable weapons platform. Space fighters so to speak.

  • Edward

    Pzatchok asked: “Why the space plane concept?”

    Let’s split reentry bodies into two categories that I will call “capsule” and “lifting body.” The capsule design enters deep into the atmosphere before it can get significant slowing due to heating of the air in front of it. If it does not get deep enough into the atmosphere, it will not slow enough to remain in the atmosphere and will remain in orbit. During the Apollo splashdown coverage, the announcers called this “skipping off the atmosphere” and back into space. For Apollo, this could have meant that it would still be at escape velocity, but either way, there was not a lot of power in the capsule to last long enough for a second chance at reentry.

    Such deep penetration into the atmosphere means that the air gets especially hot and requires that the heat shield (TPS, thermal protection system) be ablative* in order to shed the heat rather than let it collect in the shield and eventually make its way into the capsule, overheating the contents, such as a crew. This means that the heat shield needs to be replaced after each flight.

    Lifting bodies (including winged craft), however, are able to “fly” high enough to remain in a thinner region of the atmosphere so that the heating rate is lower and more heat is carried away by the air and less is absorbed by the vehicle. Reentry takes longer, but the heat shield (TPS) does not need to be ablative, so it should not require replacement after each flight.** (However, the Space Shuttle’s shield was easily damaged, and did require extensive and expensive maintenance between flights.)

    The Space Shuttle ended up being so expensive that it seems Congress gave up on the lifting body concept and chose a capsule form for the Constellation and the SLS manned craft, the Orion. But then again, Orion was not expected to fly often.

    The DARPA challenge is for a system that can be reused daily. This does not sound like a weapons platform but it sounds like an inexpensive method of getting into space, more like the operations of an airliner than an expendable rocket. Indeed, of the four objectives stated in the article, three express a desire for low cost, and only one expresses a desire for immediate launch readiness. The article presents the problem, in the early paragraphs, as a need for less than years-long planning to get payloads into space.

    The intention of Peter Diamandis’ X-Prize, in the 1990s and early 2000s, was to come up with a suborbital craft that could be used multiple times, similar to an airliner. Diamandis’ idea was to inspire people to innovate new designs and methods that would make space transportation less expensive. I believe that he succeeded, as this is when space tourism became seen as an achievable concept.

    DARPA took the X-Prize concept (which was an old concept from the early days of flight — the Spirit of St. Louis won such a prize) to inspire other advancements, such as self-driving automobiles.

    DARPA now seems to be working on making access to space inexpensive and regular. It is still difficult (a large mass of structure and propellant are needed to put a small mass into Low Earth Orbit) and dangerous (rockets still blow up too often), but DARPA seems to be trying to get the cost down. DARPA also seems to be willing to hire companies and organizations, rather than require them to solely risk the many millions of dollars to accomplish this. From the article: “Cost share is expected.”

    It is generally believed that Single Stage To Orbit will provide the least expensive method of getting to and from space, but since the three or so attempts of the late 1990s failed, we do not have actual experience to confirm this.

    For SSTO, I still have high hopes for Skylon.

    * The surface “layer” of ablative heat shields liquefy and the liquid material blows away from the capsule, carrying a great deal of heat energy with it.


  • pzatchok

    DARPA doesn’t ask questions for civilian needs but for military needs.

    They asked this same type of question for the autonomous ground vehicle concept. They wanted a driverless cargo truck.
    After further research the military dropped that idea even though they perfected the driving and navigation part.’
    The companies that worked on it eventually tried to turn it to civilian work but thats failing for the same reasons the military dropped the idea.

    You have told me about the differences of the two re-entry vehicles but you have not told me how a usable cargo plane is cheaper than a simple ‘tin can’ one use cargo container.
    Plus add in the cargo limitations of the project.

    A cargo container can be made to enclose almost any size and shape cargo. All you need is a mass produced set of strap-on reaction motors and a mass produced controller for them.

    The space plane cannot be reconfigured for each mission. The very same reason the shuttle sucked. It has a fixed cargo size and shape.

    If its just for a re-usable shipping container then why has SpaceX not entered the race? They already have a ship getting ready for testing. Passenger ready.

    Its either a military project or its a nice way to pass a little cash to a few companies that might be floundering.

  • Edward

    I’m not sure where I said that it was not intended for military use.

    Google has not yet dropped its autonomous vehicles. They are still driving autonomous vehicles around the streets of Mountain View, California, as you read this, and there are no signs that they are giving up.

    You wrote: “you have not told me how a usable cargo plane is cheaper than a simple ‘tin can’ one use cargo container.”

    I think that the evidence is clear. There are many cargo planes that fly for years. There are many cargo containers that are reused for shipping. There are also many one-use cargo containers, but most are cardboard or wood boxes, not ‘tin cans.’ It all really depends upon what you are shipping and where you are shipping it.

    If, however, you are going to put multimillion dollar engines on your cargo carrier, I think that it is obvious that the ability to reuse the engines on the next shipment reduces the overall cost of the shipment. Outside of military uses (e.g. bomb delivery), can you point to one-use planes, trains, trucks, or ships? Even the military is smart enough to build its cargo planes to last decades and thousands of deliveries (e.g. C-130, C-147, C-5, and C-17).

    Airliners can make long haul flights daily or short flights multiple times a day. Clearly, this is less expensive than if each airliner required weeks to turnaround between flights, if only in the need to purchase fewer aircraft, but reducing the number of man-hours needed to refurbish and refuel also obviously reduces costs.

    Adding wings may make for a heavier aircraft, but in the long run it makes for a more useful and more reusable carrier. Do not make the mistake that a rocket *must* be as light as possible. SpaceX adds extra fuel to its first stage, reducing the maximum weight of the payload, so that it can reuse its rockets. Soon, they need not go to the expense of building a new rocket for each flight, and they have already promised a reduced price for their first reused rocket launch. Blue Origin’s New Shepherd is reusable for the same reason.

    Not having to build a 747 for each flight makes a trip across the continent much less expensive than if an airplane needs to be built for each trip. We see this by comparing the revenue for the flight as approaching three orders of magnitude less than the cost of the aircraft.

    Build once, use many is a proven way to reduce overall costs. It is why you do not buy a new car or bicycle for each time you go somewhere.

    Also, I thought I had explained that the “lifting body” (including winged spacecraft) makes for ease in achieving rapid turnaround time — an extremely important concept in this challenge, as it must fly 10 times in 10 days. Perhaps I was unclear on that, but it was what I meant when I said the heat shield did not need replacement after each flight.

    You wrote: “Plus add in the cargo limitations of the project.”

    Some sort of limitation is necessary. Why start with the 20 billion tonne cargo capability when a smaller capability is easier and cheaper to prove the concept? The larger the rocket, the harder it is to reuse the next day (how often can you fly an Estes model rocket v. NASA reusing a Space Shuttle?).

    Oops. I forgot. That would also limit the cargo to 20 billion metric tonnes, and you would still complain about the cargo limitation.

    The 900 to 1,500 pound cargo requirement may be the size of satellite DARPA thinks would be most useful — perhaps for rapid surveillance deployment to cover developing situations. After all, we no longer have the SR-71 for this type of mission, which was a major strength of that plane.

    You wrote: “The space plane cannot be reconfigured for each mission. The very same reason the shuttle sucked.”

    No. The Shuttle “sucked” because it cost too much and took too long between missions. If the fleet had been able to fly every other week, as intended, it would have been brilliant, and space would almost certainly have opened up a lot more by the end of the 1980s. Also, because Congress mandated that all US government payloads fly on the shuttle, it would have destroyed the US launcher market (it almost did).

    You wrote: “[The Shuttle] has a fixed cargo size and shape.”

    No. It had a maximum size, shape, and weight. But then, so do cargo ships, trucks, trains, and planes. Lighter and smaller cargoes are always possible. I once packed a spacecraft’s power supply unit all by itself in an air-ride box truck (it was a rush job and worth the cost), but it would have fit nicely in the trunk of my car. We do not always fill up the cargo section of our vehicles. However, it is not cost effective to routinely use a Saturn V to put a cubesat into orbit. Different sized vehicles are nice to have to be cost effective with different sizes and weights of cargo.

    You wrote: “A cargo container can be made to enclose almost any size and shape cargo. All you need is a mass produced set of strap-on reaction motors and a mass produced controller for them.”

    It looks like you solved the entire design problem. I look forward to your entry in DARPA’s competition, or maybe just your entry into the space transportation market.

    If it were really that easy, then Von Braun would have strapped together even more Redstones than he did for the Saturn I and IB, instead of designing the Saturn V. There are limitations to the strap-on concept.

    You wrote: “If its just for a re-usable shipping container then why has SpaceX not entered the race? They already have a ship getting ready for testing. Passenger ready.”

    You have mischaracterized the project: it is for “a fully reusable unmanned booster vehicle [that] would fly to high speeds at a suborbital altitude” (from the article). Not a shipping container.

    I do not know if SpaceX proposed a system. Perhaps they did but were not selected. Perhaps they are concentrating on larger orbital rockets, which is why they have abandoned the Falcon 1, and were not interested in being distracted from their current primary mission. Realistically, the Falcon 9 is unlikely to be able to accomplish 10 launches in 10 days. Ever. If SpaceX ever does make such a rocket, it will almost certainly be a different design that has a designed-in rapid turnaround time.

    Once again, Skylon is the closest design to an airliner that I have seen for an orbital space launch vehicle. It does not require cranes, trains, or massive crawlers to get it from the hangar to the runway, and its operations look far more like an airliner’s than any other orbital rocket I have seen, so far.

  • pzatchok

    My mistake.

    They don’t want a re-usable orbital vehicle they want a plane like re-usable first stage.

    Cheapest thing to do is to buy an old MIG 25.
    It can reach the height they want and has the best speed available(mach 2,8) and carries over 9000 lbs along its center line.

    If they can make a 9000 lb rocket able to put a 900 lb payload into orbit they have the thing whipped.
    On the cheap.

    And I do believe the US military was trying this out in the 80’s and accomplished it.
    And this missile was only 2500 lbs and could reach orbit.

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