Despite two straight years of declining revenues, Boeing investors finally have something to celebrate as the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) just announced that it has awarded Boeing the contract to design and produce its advanced XS-1 spaceplane. Coming just a few weeks after the Boeing X-37B landed at Florida’s Kennedy Space Station after its record-breaking two-year trip in space, this recent announcement holds out hope that Boeing may be able to use its burgeoning spaceplane program to offset any decline in its share of the civilian aircraft market.
By earning the contract for the DARPA XS-1 spaceplane program, Boeing showed that it is most definitely still a force to be reckoned with. Three companies were chosen by DARPA for Phase 1 of the program, and along with Boeing, designs for the XS-1 were also created by Northrop Grunman-Virgin Galactic and Masten Space Systems-XCOR Aerospace. However, DARPA obviously decided that the designed created by the Boeing-Blue Origin team, dubbed the Phantom Express, gave it the best chance of meeting its goal of creating a hypersonic plane capable of quickly and affordably launching satellites into low-Earth orbit.
If all goes to plane, the Phantom Express will theoretically be able to fly out to the very edge of space, where it will then release a small second stage capable of launching satellites weighing up to 3,000 lbs. into lower-Earth orbit. After deploying the second stage, the Phantom Express would then return back to land on a conventional runway.
Typically it takes months or even years of planning to launch a single satellite due to the various complications involved with using traditional launch vehicles. However, DARPA and Boeing hope that the XS-1 will eventually enable it to launch satellites on demand without having to waste all that time waiting. Furthermore, the Phantom Menace should also be able to drastically reduce costs as this type of combination launch vehicle should allow satellites to be deployed within a matter of days for a tiny fraction of what a traditional launch costs.
Although advancements have been made in ensuring that even traditional launch vehicles now have the potential to be reused, the unmanned and reusable XS-1 has the possibility to further revolutionize satellite launch capabilities in ways we can’t even yet understand. Of course, it will likely be years before the XS-1 is actually put into use, but this hasn’t stopped people from already beginning to imagine the huge potential that the XS-1 program holds for Boeing and also the future of aerospace technology in general.