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Will DARPA's New Space Shuttle Crush the SpaceX Grasshopper?

DARPA's hypothetical "space plane." Photo: DARPA.

SpaceX wants to put American astronauts back in space aboard American-built rockets powered by American-built rocket engines.

But will the American government give the company the chance?

SpaceX recently accomplished a successful "soft" landing of a Falcon 9 rocket that had delivered its payload to space, then returned safely to Earth. (As planned, it landed on a patch of "Earth" that was actually water and promptly sank.)*

SpaceX hopes to turn the Falcon 9 into the next stage in evolution of the company's revolutionary "Grasshopper" vertical takeoff and landing space rocket. Dubbing the next stage in the Grasshopper experiment, the Falcon 9R ("R" for "reusable"), SpaceX's ultimate goal is to build a rocket ship that can launch into space, deliver its satellite payload, then drop back down through the atmosphere and land vertically on its launch pad. If the company succeeds, it will give the U.S. government its first truly reusable spacecraft since the cancellation of the space shuttle program.

SpaceX's Grasshopper: Small, but with big potential. Photo: SpaceX.

The bigger question is whether the U.S. government will want it.

DARPA steals SpaceX's thunder
A reusable spacecraft holds the potential to save taxpayers billions of dollars in costs by not having to build disposable spacecraft for each new satellite launch. But the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is already working on its own idea for a reusable spacecraft.

Dubbed the "Experimental Spaceplane," or XS-1 program, the new spacecraft would actually work more as a suborbital space shuttle. Operated remotely like a drone, and flying at speeds in excess of Mach 10, XS-1 would lift small payloads into the stratosphere, then fire them into orbit via a small, disposable, "upper stage" rocket. The XS-1 would then fly back down to Earth to land just like a plane would.

DARPA thinks that if it can get this concept up and running, it should be possible to deliver small satellites (1.5-2.5 tons) into orbit at a cost of about $5 million apiece. That's 10 times less than the $55 million that SpaceX charged SES for one satellite launch last year aboard its (currently disposable) Falcon 9 rocket. In fact, $5 million would almost certainly be cheaper than what SpaceX could charge even with a reusable Falcon 9.

As such, DARPA's XS-1 project has the potential to undercut SpaceX's pricing and smother its reusable spacecraft project in the cradle.

Who benefits?
DARPA has hired three teams of space industry contractors to do initial design work on XS-1:

DARPA has not revealed how much it will pay the contractors to begin work on XS-1 -- much less how much they might earn from contracts to actually build the craft, should the program proceed that far. But the latter amount (at least) is likely to be substantial, and SpaceX is not even in the running to win it.

Who gets hurt?
SpaceX, certainly, has a lot at stake if DARPA's XS-1 program succeeds. A viable XS-1 could quickly make the company's reusable Falcon 9 program look obsolete -- and expensive. What might surprise you, though, is that the biggest casualty of a successful XS-1 program might not be SpaceX, but Boeing -- one of the companies that might win the DARPA project.

As one half of the government-supported United Launch Alliance (which also includes Lockheed Martin), Boeing benefits mightily from the current system of sending satellites into orbit aboard disposable spacecraft. These launches cost the government -- and taxpayers -- about $10,000 per pound of payload delivered into space. But if XS-1 can move 5,000 pounds. into orbit for just $5 million, that works out to just $1,000 per pound -- a tenfold reduction in cost and a tenfold reduction in space launch revenue for Boeing (and Lockheed Martin).

What goes up, must (drive prices) down
That's could be a big hit to Boeing's business. But at least if it builds DARPA's space plane, Boeing will still retain some revenue from the space launch business. The alternative is to not build XS-1, to allow SpaceX to put Falcon 9R into service unchallenged, and, slowly but surely, to get priced out of the space launch business. For Boeing, that's simply too big a risk to take.

*Editor's note: A previous version of this article was misleading about whether the SpaceX rocket's "wet landing" was intentional or accidental. The Motley Fool regrets the confusion.

XS-1 could leapfrog SpaceX in the race to space. But whoever wins, the price of "space access" is coming down. Source: DARPA.


Read/Post Comments (12) | Recommend This Article (3)

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  • Report this Comment On August 03, 2014, at 3:37 PM, southernshark wrote:

    A bad article, in my opinion. The two devices do radically different things. The small shuttle device is only good for putting small packages into lower earth orbit.

    Any sort of manned flight would need to go higher and carry more.

    The two are radically different devices to be used for different purposes.

    If the US wants to continue with manned space exploration, and it sounds like the author of this story hopes that it does not do that, then it needs something like the Space-X design.

  • Report this Comment On August 03, 2014, at 4:50 PM, jason99 wrote:

    This article is extremely misleading for several reasons. First off, the grasshopper is not a space launch vehicle and has no reason to be in the title. It is a test system to prove the avionics software FOR the F9r. It has an operational ceiling of a few thousand feet.

    Second, the reason SES paid so much was for two very prudent reasons completely missed by the article, even though they are the reason these two companies are in the spotlight: reusability, and the prototypical stages of development. The F9r, once fully reusable, will only need to pay for refueling, which only costs around 200 thousand dollars according to SpaceX. However the SES launch was not designed with the intention of being fully reused (as that's still in testing), this makes the price similar to what SES would normally pay for a Delta II rocket. Granted, the Delta II has been a workhorse for the commercial space industry for years, it is still more expensive than this specific launch.

    Third, I'd like to address this quote: "Unfortunately, it landed on a patch of "Earth" that was actually water and promptly sank. But you can't win 'em all."

    SpaceX is legally obligated to operate it's soft-landing tests over the ocean. You would be crazy to expect them to test a rocket filled with thousands of pounds of leftover fuel to land over US soil on just it's second re-entry test.

    Fourth, the XS-1 is exactly as you put it: a hypothetical vehicle. Not even at that, it's simply a goal. I am always weary when seeing such lofty goals and ambitions with only hypothetical CG models to show for it.The only reason DARPA is even releasing this PR is because the ULA has held a monopoly over space launch business for the past 15 years in the states. This is one of the reasons SpaceX was even able to start, because they flat-out refused to compete with each other.

    Fifth, Mach 10 comes out to 7612.07 miles per hour. This is compatible to the first stage of the F9, however the capacity listed for the vehicle at 1.5 to 2.5 tons concerns me. With the rocket equation, this mass would include the mass of the second stage rocket, meaning only a fraction of that would be available for the actual satellites themselves. This may be viable for microsatelites but not for commercial operation. If this is the case, you would be limited to MAYBE a few hundred kilograms payload, when the NRO contracts the Delta IV for payloads over 30 tons.

  • Report this Comment On August 03, 2014, at 5:11 PM, phillipzx3 wrote:

    Rich Smith,

    You are not a journalist. Please find another occupation.

    "SpaceX recently accomplished a successful "soft" landing of a Falcon 9 rocket that had delivered its payload to space, then returned safely to Earth. (Unfortunately, it landed on a patch of "Earth" that was actually water and promptly sank. But you can't win 'em all.)"

    Did you ever ask why? No, you didn't. You're a hack.

  • Report this Comment On August 03, 2014, at 9:23 PM, trestranpryat wrote:

    Yes. The article is misleading and unfair. It implies that SpaceX tried to land their rocket and failed.

    When in reality this was a test to land the rocket on water. They've tried twice. And twice they've been successful.

    In the near future they may try land.

    I think it is fair for the author to issue a correction to the article.

  • Report this Comment On August 03, 2014, at 9:58 PM, greatnesslost wrote:

    Two different animals. This concept is similar to a F15 and its satellite killer system developed as part of Star Wars research. A maximum load of 5,000 pounds to Mach 10 is not Low Earth Orbit. Based on best rocket manufacture, this would be 4200 pounds of second stage, including propellent, and 800 pounds into an orbit no higher than 110 miles. It could not even get to the International Space Station.

    Space X does have competition, SKYLON may fly. Skylon is a true space plane concept with yet to be fired part air breathing rocket engines. Designed for lifting astronauts, and or payload up to 4 tons to LEO. F9 R about 7 Tons. A merlin D based Falcon Heavy, three F9 R cores, just over 20 tons to LEO. FH conventional 53 tons.

    The European Space Agency is trying to compete with F9, spending $5 billion to develop a rocket with similar lift capacity, and per launch customer charge. Space X designed and deployed F9 for $390 million. Based on profit margin stated by the ESA it would take 1250 launches to break even. Not gonna happen.

    Space X is building a new Methane/LNG, LOX engine with Specific Impulse, ISp that is superior to the Russian RD 180 being used on Atlas V. Raptor at 343 sea level, and recently claimed 371 in Vacuum. Delta flown by ULA, its hydrogen LOX engine has a vacuum ISp of 470. Raptor making between 800,000 and 1,000,000 pounds thrust, similar to what is used on Delta IV. However, and this is really, really important.

    Space X super heavy will use 9 Raptor engines per core. Delta IV uses one engine per core. Super Heavy up to three cores, as Delta does. Reusable, super heavy dwarf's Delta's lift capacity, and price. LNG is a lot less "bitchy" to deal with than hydrogen, and burns a lot cleaner than kerosene as well, and with its planned single turbo pump Raptor is both cheaper to manufacture, and to refurbish when, not if it is returned to base.

    Super Heavy R is a game changer. It will take lots of R&D money to finish this machine, likely $2 billion. Space X has enough business on its manifest to provide this $. This I suspect is Musk's plan given he wants to go to Mars. Two disposed flights of Super Heavy could lift more mass than the International Space Station has, along with 300 tons of fuel. You are going to see the stuff of science fiction if SH flies. SH should cost about $250 million per launch, disposable, and $50 million reusable. (lifting 190 tons into LEO with this variant). That is about $132.00 a pound, far below $1000 cited for DARPA.

    I do not believe in direct colonization of Mars. In reality who will want to stay there? Its desolate. Radioactive. Cold, damned cold, and has very little recoverable metals on its weathered surface. With Hoffman Transfer a minimum of six months to get there. At light speed up to 20 minutes to say something to mom, and wait for here reply. Talk about isolated. Unlike Mercury, the moon, and very large asteroids, weathering, and lack of plate techtonics means veins of metal that form on Earth, likely have not to a significant degree on Mars, and metals from late solar system bombardment are hundreds, or more feet below surface rubble, or covered up by thick ancient lava flow - basically not that easy to access. With a significant atmosphere of C02, you have to use more conventional rocket technology to fire materials from Mar's surface into orbit. Using draco, and raptor engines, you can manufacture methane for a return shot, but at quite a high cost. A very low cost means of getting useable mass into orbit, and to Earth to help fund colonization is closed.

    Not so with Mercury, the moon, or asteroids like Ceres and Vesta (for starters). These have tens of billions of tons of very valuable metals strewn all over their surfaces due to late solar system bombardment. The all have water. These resources are easily accessible, as crashing a satellite into Foley crater, moon, has demonstrated. Using Super Heavy to put a lunar base into operation that can fire valuable metals to Earth, and put thousands of tons of mass into the moon's orbit.

    The cannon made by Bull Sterling in 1962 fired projectiles up to 240 pounds, at 8000 MPH using hydrogen oxygen propellent. The one Sterling was making for Saddam Hussein would have fired a one ton projectile at near this velocity. Using steel made on the moon, with easier, not harder conditions for manufacture of large cannon barrels, heating with solar mirrors, and H2-O made on site for propellent, guns of very large size are possible. Between 1 and 5 feet in diameter, more than two miles long. In my paper it takes 40 months for the base to fashion its first 4 foot in diameter cannon. Able to fire a roll of low grade steel that would cover 46,000 square feet, massing 62,000 pounds into orbit. This cannon could fire a "slug" of silver, platinum, gold and other precious metals, shielded with tungsten, shaped a bit to help atmospheric drag, guided by a very small orbital maneuvering package, directly from Moon to an atoll in the south Pacific. It would hit the surface at about 800 MPH, shatter on impact to a degree, but so what. Recover, smelt, sell...

    I've done the math. Within a decade of a decision to use Super Heavy to build out moon base / mining / lift system (using cannon designed by Gerald Bull Sterling), this business could be producing a gross profit of about $1 billion a month worth of valuable metals to Earth. Most of the base would be underground, either ploughing it out, or in existing lava tubes. Robots would play a large role with building and ongoing base operations. it would produce all its atmosphere, water, and 99% of food. (You'd fly steaks, booze, and ice cream in, - little else) The moon has $ Trillions worth of strategic metals, helium 3, nickel and iron strewn all over it. Would a viable name for this base be Dawson City?

    Conventional NASA type planning does not use profit with its equation. Government low risk types just cite a fantastic number like $750 billion to get a lunar base on the scale of Antarctica up and $50 billion plus per year to keep it running. This is of course based on $10,000 a pound lifting cost sending the whole shebang from Earth. My plan has 99.995% of the mass coming on, or from the moon, lifted at 0.5¢ per pound, into lunar orbit to be fashioned into ships there. 95% produced by robotics, the really high tech stuff flown out there, like empty CANDU reactor cores, that are filled with natural uranium from the moon. Cheap solar power, and water. Solar Cells made from 3D printing, with lunar materials. Water pulled right from the dirt, or some left over ice deposited 4 billion years ago. You don't start with a plan to build a base, that is not it at all. You aim for colony ships able to ply the entire solar system. Initially they fly to set up mining operations for more materials to build out massive floating power stations that beam energy to Earth at a fraction of conventional oil/ or coal. It is profit that drives the thing, not UN poppycock that space is a collective resource its use commanded by government edict.

    It sounds far out, even illegal drug induced, but it is not. For the first time in human history we are able to do this, make a crap load of money doing so, and open up the entire Solar System's resources for human development. Infinite, not finite as Obama and his crew of dull advisors keep telling Americans. Doing this, is what Elon Musk, and Space X type innovation are making possible...

  • Report this Comment On August 04, 2014, at 9:01 AM, ricjensen wrote:

    I agree with most everything in the comments and virtually nothing in the article. It is unfortunate that the author felt a need to denigrate SpaceX.

    As mentioned the systems will both be valuable for different missions. The commentators actually had more relevant points and content then the article.

    Let's hope for better in the future. Just like what SpaceX has accomplished and therefore driven the competition.

  • Report this Comment On August 04, 2014, at 1:20 PM, MyDruthers1 wrote:

    "DARPA thinks that if it can get this concept up and running, it should be possible to deliver small satellites (1.5-2.5 tons) into orbit at a cost of about $5 million apiece"

    Do ANY of you believe this number? Based on history I am willing to bet anyone reading this a large portion of my retirement that it will cost AT LEAST twice whatever estimate DARPA has given. This will be a VERY safe bet in my book.

  • Report this Comment On August 04, 2014, at 1:59 PM, krowbar wrote:

    4 tons to geostationary (the $55M SES-8 launch mentioned) aint quite the same as 2 tons to Mach 10 - or even LEO for the matter. Figger stuff out afore you write it up bro. Just sayin.

  • Report this Comment On August 04, 2014, at 3:35 PM, TXObjectivist75 wrote:

    I seem to remember pie in the sky operational and cost savings claims made about the Space Shuttle in the 70s. Something like 1 launch per 2 weeks, and you ended up with ~4 per year. I'd give Musk the edge in this one.

  • Report this Comment On August 04, 2014, at 4:05 PM, Rotomoley wrote:

    DARPA will never be able to beat SpaceX on price. Maybe technology, but not price. Also, the DARPA plane will have many years to be operational if ever.

  • Report this Comment On August 04, 2014, at 9:19 PM, mrlago wrote:

    A reusable F9r would be far cheaper than 5 million per flight. And the technology for it is much farther along than this so far theoretical XS-1. And it will still be able to carry larger payloads.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 4:22 PM, TonyRusi wrote:

    I don't think much of this article, and while the comments are "more correct" than the article itself, they are NOT error free either. SpaceX has tried "softlanding" in the ocean three times not two. And it has succeeded twice. And 97% of the delta-v required to softland was achieved during the first attempt. SpaceX appears to be using the KISS motto! Keep it simple stupid! SpaceX is landing like almost every 1950's sci-fi movie predicted we would. SpaceX is landing like Apollo 11 landed on the moon. SpaceX is doing veritcal landings just like the 1967 Bono Study predicted. Just like DC-X did several times. Just like several robotic craft have landed on mars. It would be fair to compare the DARPA XS-1 to the SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable first stage ONLY! But the history of mixing rockets and wings has not been good. In fact, it's killed 14 astronauts on the Space Shuttle alone. And the Space Shuttle was sold to the taxpayer as a cheap reusable rocket that was going to dramatically lower the cost of space travel. AND IT DID NOT HAPPEN! SpaceX has a much better chance of succeeding as a rapidly reusable rocket than the space shuttle did however. The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage might be reusable 100 times. The SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage might be reusable somewhere between 10 and 100 times, but nobody knows for sure and they have not even tried it yet. It will require a re-entry and "softlanding" burns. SpaceX has claimed that the Dragon Crew Capsule might be reusable ten times. Adding up all that variable reusability of stages might add up to an average reusability factor of 50 for all the stages. Reducing the cost by a factor of 50 is still a breakthrough! I think SpaceX is at $1000 and pound to low earth orbit now and dividing that by 50 might mean launch wholesale costs will drop to $20 a pound. That's about twice as expensive as "airmail" shipping costs. SpaceX could really become the "FedEx of Space". This will change everything in the space world. Highly time critical items, like human organ transplants, could be shipped anywhere in the world in 90 minutes. Advertiser supported "free Cable TV" could become a reality. Worldwide Advertiser supported "free Satellite Smartphone Service" could become a reality. Colonizing Mars will happen. Colonizing the moon will happen. Colonizing the upper atmosphere of Venus will happen. Asteroid impact sites on the moon and mars will be mined, just like they are on earth already. Asteroids will be moved into the "Earth Orbit Goldilocks zone" and they will be converted into Massive Space stations with Earth like environments. Revelations 21:16 predicts a "Borg-like Cube" space colony, some 1400 miles long on an edge, will be the "House of God". Resistance is futile, SpaceX will be assimilating us! But there are problems at SpaceX that transcend even Elon Musk. Silicon Valley has this "dog eat dog" Machiavellian mindset that says work your employees to death with 60 hour weeks, and bonus your top 10%, and fire your bottom 10% if they can't hack it. This mindset has destroyed Microsoft and other Silicon Valley bright lights. There has to be a balance between work hours and family hours if our "American Way" of life is to survive.

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Rich Smith

As a defense writer for The Motley Fool, I focus on defense and aerospace stocks. My job? Every day of the week, I'm monitoring the news, figuring out the winners and losers, and tracking down the promising companies for you to invest in. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the most important developments in defense & aerospace, and other great stories.

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