Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

DARPA Prepares to Build the Next Space Shuttle

By Rich Smith - May 8, 2016 at 8:13AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

This time, it will fly without a pilot -- and won't go to space.


Boeing's idea for a new unmanned space shuttle. Image source: Boeing.

DARPA wants a new space shuttle -- and it's getting closer to building one.

For two years now, we've been following the progress of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's "XS-1" project, a continuing mission to build a reusable vehicle for launching small payloads into orbit.

Unlike the actual Space Shuttle operated by NASA from 1981 to 2011, DARPA calls its project a "space plane." Here's the crucial difference: Unlike the Space Shuttle, which launched like a rocket, orbited like a space ship, and then returned to Earth to land like an airplane, XS-1 will never actually enter orbit itself. Instead, it will rocket "to the edge of space," and once there, boost a payload the rest of the way into low Earth orbit.

After releasing the payload, XS-1 will land like an airplane, refuel, and be ready to launch again the next day. Ideally, DARPA wants its space shuttle to be so reliable and so reusable that it can fly "10 times in 10 days." 

Also, XS-1 will have no pilot. It will be a drone.


Despite appearances to the contrary, an XS-1 space shuttle will not actually enter space. Here's Northrop Grumman's XS-1 concept. Image source: Northrop Grumman.

Where we are now
When last we checked in on XS-1, DARPA was wrapping up Phase 1 of the project, in which three industry teams -- Boeing (BA -1.25%), working in collaboration with Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin; Northrop Grumman (NOC 3.63%) plus Virgin Galactic; and privately held Masten Space Systems, working with also-private XCOR Aerospace, all helped DARPA explore the technical feasibility of building a space plane/space shuttle capable of delivering payloads to orbit at a cost of $5 million per flight.

That accomplished, now DARPA is ready to proceed to Phase 2 -- building a prototype.

Phase 2
Actually, make that Phases 2 and 3. Because as best we can tell, DARPA plans to award both of its next two contracts simultaneously -- and to a single winner.

Last month, DARPA held a "Proposers Day" at which all interested parties -- not just the six companies named above -- were invited to float ideas for building a prototype XS-1. The next step will be to issue an official request for proposals, evaluate them, and pick a winner, perhaps as early as next year. 

This winner (or winning team) will then design, build, and test a prototype (Phase 2). This winner will also be awarded the Phase 3 contract to conduct flight tests of the new vehicle. While DARPA hasn't set a firm deadline for completion, it has stated that the winning bidder must use a propulsion system that it expects to "be ready for flight no later than fiscal year 2020." That implies that the XS-1 space plane must itself be ready for testing by 2020.

How much is it worth?
In a special notice to participants in the Proposers Day, DARPA clarifies that it plans to award $140 million to the winner of the Phase 2 and 3 contracts.


Boeing's X-37B space drone. It's like a space shuttle -- but without the astronauts. Image source: U.S. Air Force.

Who will win it?
Figuring the odds on the XS-1 competition isn't easy. We know that Boeing, for example, already possesses an unmanned vehicle capable of orbital flight -- its X-37B "drone space shuttle" -- which it uses to deliver military payloads to orbit. But X-37B is pretty top-secret stuff, and we have little visibility into how much it costs to operate -- or whether it comes close to DARPA's targeted $5 million-per-mission price tag.

Also, as a true spaceship, X-37B doesn't precisely match DARPA's concept of a suborbital "space plane."

File
Virgin Galactic's WK2, built based on a Northrop Grumman prototype, more closely resembles DARPA's concept of a space plane. Image source: D. Miller via Wikimedia Commons.

Northrop, meanwhile, built the original suborbital WhiteKnightTwo space plane that services Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo launch vehicle. "WK2," as it's often called, seems to hew much more closely to DARPA's desire to build a suborbital space plane with "a physical size and dry weight typical of today's business jets."

The mechanics of how WK2 works (fly up like a plane, boost payload into orbit, land like a plane) are much closer to what DARPA is asking for than is X-37B. And measuring 79 feet long with a 141-foot wingspan, WK2 seems to be closer to the right size for a business jet. (Gulfstream's G650, for example, measures 100 feet x 100 feet. Boeing's X-37B measures 29 feet x 15 feet.)

What Masten and XCOR have up their sleeves is more of an unknown. In any case, DARPA's insistence that the winner of Phases 2 and 3 "cost share" on the project could put too much financial strain on these privately held companies for them to compete. In contrast, both Boeing and Northrop have ample cash at their disposal to fund this project. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence data, Northrop boasts $1.3 billion in cash reserves, and Boeing $8.3 billion.

Knowing what we know now, if I were betting on a winner, I'd place my money on Northrop Grumman's team first, and Boeing's second.


DARPA entertains multiple concepts of what a space "plane" should look like. Image source: DARPA.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

The Boeing Company Stock Quote
The Boeing Company
BA
$136.72 (-1.25%) $-1.73
Northrop Grumman Corporation Stock Quote
Northrop Grumman Corporation
NOC
$478.57 (3.63%) $16.76

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
317%
 
S&P 500 Returns
112%

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 07/01/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.