I live in Seattle, Washington. While this blog is not restricted geographically, I am especially sensitive to space industry news that involves Boeing, a major local industry. Today, I am writing about Boeing’s participation in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for a reusable spaceplane.
DARPA is an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. It was created by President Eisenhower in response to the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in 1957. By collaborating with academic, industry, and government partners, DARPA formulates and executes research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science, often beyond immediate U.S. military requirements.
The DARPA Experimental Spaceplane (ES) program is dedicated to constructing and flying the first prototype of a new class of hypersonic aircraft to increase U.S. national security. The purpose of this new class of aircraft is to provide short notice, low cost access to space.
DARPA envisions a fully reusable unmanned vehicle about the size of a business jet. It would launch vertically and reach hypersonic speeds. After reaching a high suborbital altitude, the launch vehicle would release an expendable upper stage that could deploy a three thousand pound satellite to polar orbit. The first stage would return to Earth and land horizontally like a regular aircraft. It would then be prepared for a new mission within hours. The ES was intended to be able to carry out ten missions in ten days.
DARPA’s ES program was announced late in 2013. By July of 2014, DARPA had selected three pairs of companies to design a demonstration vehicle in Phase 1 of the project. The companies were Boeing and Blue Origin, Masten Space system with XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman with Virgin Galactic. In 2017, Boeing was selected to carry out Phase 2 to develop and construct the vehicle and Phase 3 to carry out fifteen missions in 2020.
In January of 2020, a DARPA spokesman told SpaceNews that Boeing had notified DARPA that it had decided to leave the ES program immediately. DARPA did not make any comment about why Boeing was leaving the ES program. A Boeing spokesman said, “Following a detailed review, Boeing is ending our role in the Experimental Spaceplane (XSP) program immediately. We will now redirect our investment from XSP to other Boeing programs that span the sea, air and space domains.”
DARPA has struggled to develop a reusable spaceplane for decades but has not succeeded in completing any of the programs that it has launched for this goal. Recently, DARPA has decided not to fund research and development of spaceplanes with specified features and capabilities. Instead, DARPA has shifted to promoting industry innovation for “responsive launch” vehicles.
The DARPA Launch Challenge was announced in 2018. This program offers a prize of ten million dollars to any company that is able to perform two launches of a small launch vehicle from two different sites on short notice. DARPA announced that three competitors had been selected as of April of 2019. To date, two of the competitors have dropped out of the program. DARPA will proceed with the final remaining company. DARPA hopes to be able to proceed with a test in February of this year.