Pentagon Seeks Low Cost in High Heavens

Push is on to develop new spaceship to put satellites into orbit

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Sky's The Limit: The Pentagon is wide open to what its new spaceplane might look like.

Getting to space costs too much.

That’s why the Defense Department wants a radical new airship designed to cut the cost of lobbing a satellite into orbit by 90%.

And the Pentagon is going very Star Wars: it doesn’t care whether it’s manned, winged, or even how it’s powered: “New or novel propellants are acceptable providing they can support the DARPA objective of 10 flights in 10 days,” the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said Thursday, “and the proposer can justify any risk associated with developing such propellants and rocket engines.”

The Experimental Spaceplane—XS-1 to insiders—would be reusable, although an upper stage might be used only once. “This reusable hypersonic X-Plane will demonstrate the potential for low-cost and high operations tempo military flight systems that can operate in the strategic threat environments of the 21st century, both for next-generation space launch and global reach aircraft,” the government says.

Orville and Wilbur—and Wernher, as well—call your office!

Bottom line: dangers to U.S. space operations are mounting, and the U.S. military doesn’t want to be caught with its rockets down. “Current space launch vehicles are very expensive, have no surge capability and must be contracted years in advance,” the Pentagon says. “In an era of declining budgets and proliferating foreign threats to U.S. air and space assets the need for responsive, affordable access to space is increasingly critical.”


Real bottom line: the Pentagon wants to be able to put a two-ton satellite into orbit 100 miles above the Earth for less than $5 million—“one-tenth the cost of today’s launch systems.” It is seeking a new kind of spaceship with “aircraft-like cost, operability and reliability” that can “break the cycle of escalating space system launch and high satellite costs.”

The Government Accountability Office said in September that the U.S. government plans on spending nearly $44 billion launching rockets between 2014 and 2018. “This funding represents a significant investment on the part of the government,” the GAO said.

“It just costs too doggone much,” General William Shelton, chief of U.S. Air Force Space Command, said in July. “We have got to get to the place where we can drive down the cost of space launch.”

Spaceship designers are encouraged to submit their ideas by Jan. 16, the initial November announcement said. The Pentagon plans on awarding multiple contracts for the best designs, and then review their prospects to see if any one warrants an additional investment of up to $140 million. First flight could take place in 2018, assuming someone comes up with a good idea, and the U.S. government can afford it. “Awards,” the cash-strapped Pentagon noted, “are subject to the availability of funds.”