DARPA's proposed XS-1

A next-generation spaceplane that looks very much to the past for inspiration.

STS flight 106

This is Space Shuttle Atlantis rocketing to the sky. It's astonishing, inspirational, sure... but that launch system was ungainly, weird, and not at all ideal.

Early Shuttle Concept

As part of the extensive concept design phase before the Shuttle was decided upon, many different space plane designs were dreamed of. This one, from Grumman, is a lot like the XS-1...and used parts of the Apollo rocket program to launch it. Significant Apollo-based designs are actually being used in the U.S.'s next big rocket anyway.

Britain's beautiful Skylon

If it ever gets made, the Skylon will fulfill many a scientist's dreams, since it will take off and land like a plane but fly into orbit like a rocket. This would make operating it potentially very, very cheap.

HOTOL, an abandoned British spaceplane.

Spaceplane HOTOL, or "Horizontal Take-Off and Landing" would probably have put the U.K. ahead of the rest of the world in the space race in the 1990s--if its technical challenges had been cracked. They weren't, and it was canceled in 1988.

Boeing's X-37--the USAF's currently flying mystery spyplane?

Boeing's X-37 is being test flown on long duration spaceflights by the Air Force, though no one is talking about what the missions are testing.

DARPA Dreams Of The Shuttle's Successor: An Experimental Spaceplane

DARPA has released its plans for the XS-1, a reusable spaceplane. But the thing is, the design's really rather old.

The Space Shuttle is dead. Long live the, er, new Space Shuttle!

The Space Shuttle was a nickname, since it was actually called the Space Transportation System. It was the most complex machine humans have ever built, dangerous yet phenomenally successful and ridiculously expensive to run. It took decades to build, which makes some brand new plans published by DARPA rather interesting. The defense research outfit intends to create the XS-1, the Experimental Spaceplane.

The XS-1 is supposed to be a smaller, cheaper, and more reliable space transportation system than the STS. Unmanned, it would launch from a "clean" pad with few support staff required (reminding us of Japan's recent launch), then fly up to suborbital space at hypersonic speeds, launch a payload that would rocket satellites into orbit, then fly back to land on a runway. Reusable inside a single day, it could drastically slash the cost of getting smallish payloads into orbit.

Right now DARPA's just looking for proposals, so actual flying hardware is years away. But if you think the idea is a bit familiar, you're right. The U.S. already operates a small unmanned "spaceplane", presumably used for surveillance purposes due to its secrecy. Britain's plans for an even more technically impressive hypersonic spaceplane are derived from an earlier project called HOTOL that looks a bit like the XS-1. And the original concepts for the Space Shuttle (from the 1970s, before politics helped mess the design up and turn it into a mongrel) called for it to fly into space either on top of a rocket or piggybacked on a carrier plane, which would've been far cheaper and safer.

[Image courtesy of DARPA]

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