Fox News on September 18, 2013, published a Space.com report on the United States military kick-starting a suborbital hypersonic vehicle program that also aims to launch payloads into orbit on the cheap. Excerpts below:
The new program, run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is called Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1. It follows in the footsteps of previous DARPA hypersonic projects, such as the HTV-2 aircraft that reached 20 times the speed of sound in an August 2011 test flight.
Officials want the reusable, unmanned XS-1 to take advantage of capabilities to be showcased under another DARPA initiative, the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which aims to launch small spacecraft (up to 100 pounds) in the 2015-2016 time period for just $1 million per liftoff, including range costs.
The XS-1 endeavor would allow routine access to space for a larger payload class — 1,000 pounds to 4,000 pounds or so — at about $5 million per launch, officials said.
“We’re looking for radical and disruptive changes,” said former NASA astronaut Pamela Melroy, now deputy director of the Tactical Technology Office at DARPA. “We are about demonstrations. It’s not enough to just experiment. You have to actually prove it.”
Melroy, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and test pilot, is no stranger to space. Before departing NASA in 2009, she flew on three space shuttle missions: STS-92 in 2000, STS-112 in 2002 and STS-120 in 2007. She served as pilot on her first two flights and commanded the third.
After her NASA career, Melroy helped to investigate the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster and also served as the acting deputy associate administrator and director of field operations in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, a body that is starting to develop regulatory approaches for private manned spaceflight.
The goals of the XS-1 include flying 10 times in 10 days, as well as achieving Mach 10 — ten times the speed of sound, Melroy said. (The speed of sound at sea level is about 761 mph.)
“This is not a single-stage-to-orbit,” she said. “This is a suborbital, hypersonic vehicle that will also allow us to do advanced hypersonic testing as well. And of course we are going to launch a payload into orbit.”
Melroy said that there will be a broad agency announcement out from DARPA sometime in the next month or so. An industry day for those interested in working on the XS-1 initiative is scheduled for early October, she said.
Early artwork aside, DARPA has not yet committed to a winged design for the XS-1. The key is that it needs to have a reusable first stage, Melroy said.
“We all know how expensive space has gotten,” she said.
The goal is to go beyond Mach 3, and “we actually think that getting to Mach 10 is the bigger reach that DARPA is looking for,” Melroy added. “We’re headed for the big step with Mach 10.”
Melroy’s office is interested in technologies that provide a robust, reliable, affordable and innovative means for achieving access to space. The focus is on revolutionizing the responsiveness and flexibility of space systems by introducing “aircraft-like” space access.
DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office is also interested in space vehicle technologies that allow access to a wide range of altitudes and inclinations and also enable highly efficient on-orbit maneuvers.
“We’ve gone far too long without any serious experimental vehicles for launch technology,” said Rand Simberg, an industry consultant and writer on space business, technology and policy. He is author of the forthcoming book “Safe Is Not An Option,” which details what he views as the irrational risk aversion in spaceflight.
“Too many times an experimental program is just an excuse to push someone’s pet technology, even if it doesn’t necessarily make economic or engineering sense,” Simberg added. “I hope that they’ll let the concepts drive the technology, rather than the other way around.”