Earlier in the month we got to see what Northrop Grumman’s vision of such a spacecraft would look like. The company teamed up with Scaled Composites and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to create the XS–1
A press release from the company details that the XS–1 (which means experimental spaceplane) will have a reusable booster that when coupled with an expendable upper stage provides affordable, available and responsive space lift for 3,000-pound class spacecraft into low Earth orbit. Reusable boosters with aircraft-like operations provide a breakthrough in space lift costs, enabling new generations of lower cost, innovative and more resilient spacecraft.
Northrop say that the XS–1 will use a special launching system that will only need minimal ground crew and autonomous in-flight systems. Landing will be undertaken horizontally, just like normal commercial aircraft. The company is defining its concept for XS–1 under a 13-month, phase one contract valued at $3.9 million. In addition to low-cost launch, the XS–1 would serve as a test-bed for a new generation of hypersonic aircraft.
A key program goal is to fly 10 times in 10 days using a minimal ground crew and infrastructure. Reusable aircraft-like operations would help reduce military and commercial light spacecraft launch costs by a factor of 10 from current launch costs in this payload class.
No need to purchase those intergalactic underpants just yet however, we won’t get to see the combined work of these companies until DARPA holds its phase 2 competition sometime in 2015, and a few years after that we can expect to see the first spaceplane launched.