For decades, satellites and interplanetary probes have been sent into orbit via the Space Transportation System (STS), known more commonly as the Space Shuttle. Despite its fame and success, the Space Shuttle is far from perfect. To start, the shuttle is incredibly expensive to fly; on average, each flight costs NASA a staggering $1.5 Billion (1). Additionally, due to the inherently dangerous nature of space travel, two shuttles — Challenger and Columbia — have been lost over the course of the program, resulting in the death of fourteen astronauts (2). Fortunately, at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) researchers are working on an improved alternative to replace the Space Shuttle.
Referred to as the XS-1, this new unmanned shuttle would be smaller, less expensive, and more reliable than its predecessor. According to DARPA, a typical mission would look like this: The XS-1 takes off and reaches its desired speed and altitude; from there, a detachable pod launches the cargo into orbit; after this is complete, the XS-1 would be able to safely return to its base within a few hours (3).
The most important aspect of this process lies in the fact that the shuttle operates completely in a sub-orbital environment. The XS-1 could launch a large satellite into orbit for an estimated $5 million, a drastic improvement from current methods (4). Additionally, due to the fact that the XS-1 never leaves the atmosphere, it could complete missions in less than a day. Compared to previous shuttles or rockets, which required years’ worth of planning for a single launch, the difference is astounding. DARPA is planning for the prototype to fly ten missions in ten days to showcase this ability (4).
For now, a flying prototype is years away; however, DARPA has contracted a handful of companies for this job. Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and Masten Space Systems are currently in competition to design a prototype for the program (4). DARPA will then select one of the designs from the three companies for an actual prototype. It is only when the actual prototype is built that more details on the project will be known. As of now, we are currently relegated mostly to speculation. Despite this, the project is exciting as it could lead to a renewed space effort by the United States in the coming decades.
(1) Pielke, Jr. Roger A. "The Rise and Fall of the Space Shuttle." Amer. Scientist American Scientist Amer. Sci. Am. Sci. Am. Scientist 96.5 (2008): 432. Web.
(2) "Space Accidents." Infoplease. Infoplease, n.d. Web. 28 June 2016.
(3) Eaton, Kit. "DARPA Dreams Of The Shuttle's Successor: An Experimental Spaceplane." Fast Company. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2016.
(4) "DARPA Is Moving Ahead with Plans to Build Its XS-1 Spaceplane." 3GBM. N.p., 22 June 2016. Web. 27 June 2016.
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