For that grew up with healthy doses of science fiction, this has to be an exceptional time in history. The last few decades have brought us inventions that were once seen as impossible tasks dreamed up by the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. There have been the smaller hallmarks such as freeze dried ice cream and Velcro- but sometimes moments come that blow our minds. One of the most desired of those dreams is the idea of the space plane; a device capable of better enabling space flight and making extended space travel more feasible utilizing hyper-sonic flight. The space plan is looked to be the next big step in taking us beyond the stars.
The idea of the space plane is nothing new. Crafts capable of sub-sonic or even hyper-sonic (faster than 5x the speed of sound) flight have been theorized for years. However, with the increasing use and advances of the early sub-orbital aircraft that has allowed us to stretch further into the atmosphere. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the US military are making progress towards a new unmanned space plane, called Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1); aiming for flight-testing to begin as early as 2017. The earliest reports show a scheduled a timeframe around May of 2017 for the XS-1’s first tests, with an orbital test flight in 2018.
Blazing this trail, to find cheaper and more efficient to space, is to finally realize the dream of the shuttle program- to make space accessible. Without having to expend great amounts of energy to get out of the atmosphere, a space plane vastly lowers the cost-per-pound to transport a payload. The XS-1 is slated to have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000lb payloads for the unheard of budget of just under $5 million per flight, which they can replicate at least 10 times a year. This is a rate of efficiency the NASA shuttle program never could have hoped to replicate.
Another feature of this type of flight that the shuttles could never reach is reusability. Part of the reason that the cost-per-payload is projected as low as it is, is that without the need to jettison most of the craft to get out of the atmosphere the space planes become reusable on a huge scale. As it stands, the actual craft comprises little of the entire shuttle launch. Upon takeoff, up until orbit is attained, boosters are jettisoned leaving a substantially smaller craft. It is far from a perfect solution.
“The vision here is to break the cycle of escalating space system costs, enable routine space access and hypersonic vehicles,” XS-1 program manager Jess Sponable during a presentation with NASA’s Future In-Space Operations (FISO) group.
“We’re interested not just in launch, but also in seeing if we can find a way to enable more affordable, more routine, simpler hypersonic vessels.”
The XS-1 is just the latest in a string of DARPA successes that include the HTV-2 aircraft- which was able to reach 20x the speed of sound during a benchmark 2011 test flight. Additionally the Experimental Spaceplane is built upon the achievements of ALASA (the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access) program. The ALASA was created to assist more traditional space craft achieve orbit. The ALASA is set for small spacecraft launch (up to 100lbs) in 2015-2016 for the paltry sum of $1 million per liftoff.
Regarding the actual specifics, DARPA isn’t getting particular. This military contract looks to be flexible, opening the playing field to a wider range of options. Jess Sponable continues:
“…DARPA is leaving the specifics of the XS-1 system — which aims to provide routine, aircraft-like access to space — up its potential builders.”
“We don’t care if it’s vertical take-off, horizontal land, vertical-vertical, which brings in a lot of the entrepreneurs,” he said in the FISO presentation. “We don’t care if they air-launch it, air-tow it, whatever. So we’ve left all those wide open.”
The beauty of a fully functional space plane such as the XS-1 is in the wide array of options granted by it. The eventual product of the program has far-reaching promise, serving as a recon satellite or hyperson-vehicle testbed. The commercial world is eagerly awaiting the many benefits that are to be gained as well. The largest benefit in the private sector would have to be the superfast point-to-point transportation the XS-1 could deliver.
While the specifics aren’t set in stone yet, there are some very lofty goals set forth for the XS-1 project. The theme of the XS-1 seems to be 10x10x10: 10 times in 10 days at Mach 10- ten times the speed of sound. No doubt much of the boldness behind these goals comes from confidence, the kind of confidence that comes from having a tenured NASA astronaut on staff. Pamela Melroy is a space flight veteran, with 3 shuttle flights in 7 years. Melroy now serves at the Deputy Director of the Tactical Technology Office at DARPA. The space veteran has been vocal about her confidence in the project, and her determination to see their goals met.
“We’re looking for radical and disruptive changes. We are about demonstrations. It’s not enough to just experiment. You have to actually prove it.”
This massive leap forward has been a long time goal in space travel, and flight in general. However, many have gone on record that we just seem to be resting on the laurels of the X-15. Once the sound barrier was broken, results became scattershot at best. Jess Sponable calls the XS-1, “a return to bold aerospace projects of decades past.”
“We stopped when we flew the X-15 back in the ’60s; we didn’t do anything else,” he said. “Well, that was a mistake — we should have continued pushing the technology, because we would not be in the dire situation with respect to space access that we’re in today had we done so.”
With eyes toward the future, we continue to looks towards the bold innovators that provide the promise of greater advances; as well as the groups like DARPA that give those promises potential.
Military Space Plane XS-1
By Military Travel Exchange