The United States military has spent years looking for a way to create a new generation of hypersonic spaceplanes. These spacecrafts would be reused regularly, with trips taking place within short periods of time. The planes would work as a Space Shuttle, taking satellites into orbit or delivering items to the International Space Station.
Now, the Department of Defense has chosen Boeing to turn their ideas into reality. DARPA, the agency that manages advanced space technologies for the Armed Forces, chose a concept design by Boeing called Phantom Express. The concept will take the Spaceplane XS-1 program to its next phase, and will see DARPA working with Boeing to create a new, reusable craft.
The goal of the XS-1 program is to create a new kind of spacecraft that will function both as an airplane and as a regular vertical rocket. The aircraft will take off vertically like a rocket, and will then use its wings to fly like a plane. At this point, the craft will then use small rocket boosters to propel itself into orbit. DARPA requires the craft to be able to lift a satellite of up to 3,000 pounds into orbit.
When the booster rocket is deployed, the satellite will be ejected from the vehicle, which allows the craft to land back onto Earth like an airplane. The vehicle can then simply be refueled and prepared for its next flight in just a matter of hours. In order for DARPA and Boeing to achieve this, they must create an extremely resilient craft that is capable of quickly recovering from the strain placed on it by the vacuum of space.
Possibly the biggest goal for DARPA, however, is attaining the desired cost for each flight. The agency is currently aiming for each flight to be reduced to as little as $5 million – which is significantly less than the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to launch traditional rockets. Boeing claims that the company is up to the task. In an official statement, the company said that the Phantom Express spacecraft will be designed to transform and disrupt the entire process of launching satellites. They will create an “on-demand space-launch capability” that makes space travel more affordable and less risky.
Boeing was one of three firms battling for their chance to create a spacecraft for the XS-1 project. The other companies who competed with Boeing were Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman Corporation. All three firms were given contracts that took them through the first phase of the project, in order to determine how feasible each design was. Their different methods were examined, and DARPA came to the conclusion that Boeing offered the best design.
The propulsion system for the Boeing spacecraft will, however, be made by a separate manufacturer. The AR-22 engine will be made by Aerojet Rocketdyne, and will be very similar to the engine that was used in the original Space Shuttle.