Boeing abruptly exits DARPA’s experimental spaceplane project

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Boeing today announced it is pulling out of DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane Program, cancelling development of its Phantom Express-1 hyposonic plane.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says Boeing is dropping out of its Experimental Spaceplane Program immediately, grounding the XS-1 Phantom Express, even though technical tests had shown the hypersonic space plane concept was feasible. “The detailed engineering activities conducted under the Experimental Spaceplane Program affirmed that no technical showstoppers stand in the way of achieving DARPA’s objectives, and that a system such as XSP would bolster national security,” DARPA said in a statement issued today.

Boeing has provided no clear explanation for this exit. I suspect it might have to do with their other problems related to the 737-Max airplane and the costs it is imposing on the company. Also, the program called for the first test flights in 2020, and it might also be that Boeing had doubts about meeting that goal.

Right now I wonder if Boeing will have to return any of the cash DARPA provided it for the work done so far, out of the total $146 million award. Moreover, at least two other companies had bid for this contract, Masten and Northrop Grumman. Will Boeing’s exit now allow them to pick up the pieces? Or has Boeing’s contract win and sudden exit mainly achieved the goal of stymieing their compeition?

Overall, this decision by Boeing is just another black mark on the company, just one of many that has occurred in the past few years.

UPDATE: It appears that Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc suspects the same Machiavellian maneuvers from Boeing as I.

A couple of years ago, a friend made the surprising predication that DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane Program (XSP) — a R&D effort designed to produce a rocket capable of being launched 10 times in 10 days — would never see any hardware built.

The reasoning went like this: the winning bidder, Boeing, really wasn’t interested in the technology. The company was actually interested in government funding and keeping other companies from developing the system.

Messier isn’t sure either, noting that the pull out might also have occurred due to the arrival of Boeing’s new CEO, only a week earlier.



  • Patrick Underwood

    WHAT a freaking surprise.

    I’m shocked. Shocked, I tell you.

  • Matthew

    Boeing related though not to this. Word from a ARS article is that there were some problems with the Starliner thrusters and they may not have passed a docking test with the ISS within limits. Hear any rumors about this?

  • Matthew: There has been some discussion about that story on a different Boeing thread here at BtB. I did not link to it because I am unsure how real it is. All its sources are anonymous. While I have great respect for Eric Berger, I would like more confirmation.

    I also think it might be overstating the issues. I prefer to wait for more info.

  • pzatchok

    There is something more wrong with the 737 than anyone is saying.

    If it was just a training thing they would have said so and basically just blamed the pilots.

    If it was a slats problem a simple programming correction would have long ago fixed it.

    It can not be the increased landing gear height because once its off the ground the gear no longer matter.

    If it was as simple as the new engines putting the plane out of balance, like some are saying is the same as Airbus, then the same fix they used would work here.

    Why can’t this plane take off?

  • Michael Schnieders

    While I am not surprised by this, I do find this to be disturbing. How does a corporation of this scale have so many issues in nearly every division? 787 Dreamliner (battery fires, production and quality control issues), 737 max(software and single point sensor failure), KC-46 Pegasus (Bribery, over budget, software issues, “cargo locks”), Intelsat 29e satellite (fuel leak,harness flaw), Intelsat 33e (primary thruster failure), Starliner (software, thruster issues)

  • Michael Schnieders: My gosh, I had forgotten Boeing’s recent satellite failures as well. This list keeps getting longer.

  • Scott M.

    And yet another Boeing satellite is in trouble.

    Although in Boeing’s defense the spacecraft is 15 years old and ‘only’ had a 12 year design life.

  • David Birchler

    I have heard that this is the result of a financial crisis at Boeing. Extremely annoying, this is the kind of program that could really make an impact on cost once the implications of high flight rates are seen and measured in the real world. Space Force could significantly benefit from a vehicle like this. I hope DARPA still has the money and inclination to get another of the Phase 1 companies back in the game.

  • Edward

    Several of the problems being listed in this thread are not major enterprise threatening problems, which is what the 737 Max is starting to look like. They are of the level that most other companies also have while they push the limits of technology in order to out-compete their competition.

    I am a bit worried that with the attention on Boeing’s recent major problem with the 737 Max, everyone is now in a mood to “pile on” with other problems. This is easy to do, since Boeing itself has replaced its CEO, apparently due to problems on multiple high visibility programs. We all are now wondering whether there is a culture at Boeing that does not prevent problems. However, listing lower level problems may not be fair to the company, just as it would not be fair to do to other companies.

    One thing that differentiates the withdrawal from the Phantom Express project from many of the minor problems now being listed is that the 737 Max problem could be a cause of this withdrawal. Boeing has to borrow $10 billion in order to correct this problem, and the production line has been shut down, showing us that Boeing is having financial troubles and can no longer afford to operate in a business-as-usual way while the 737 Max problem is solved so that the fleet can fly again.

    Perhaps there may be more programs that Boeing shuts down as it tries to recover from this enterprise threatening fiasco, which would suggest that the 737 Max is the likely cause to withdraw from Phantom Express rather than the first reason that Douglas Messier at Parabolic ARC suggested (see Robert’s update, above). If Boeing does not shut down additional projects, then maybe Messier’s friend was right after all.

    The last I heard, the most expensive software bug was the one that caused the first Ariane 5 to explode on launch, at $7 billion. It looks like the 737 Max bug may surpass that one, at $10 billion or more.

    Scott M.,
    The Direct TV satellite built by Boeing is probably not a design or assembly problem but a problem that occurred during operation. This is different than Boeing’s other problems, because these batteries are largely the same as are used on many other U.S. built geostationary satellites. The design and use of these batteries is not specific to Boeing.

    Although this battery design works well, they must be operated carefully, because thermal problems can result in explosion. The design uses a gas phase, so high temperatures can cause the internal pressure to exceed the battery’s strength. Something went wrong that makes these particular batteries more susceptible to burst.

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