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

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]KE