Updated 6:02 PM EDT, Wed, Apr 01, 2020

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DARPA Poised to Select Builder of its XS-1 Spaceplane

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(Photo : DARPA) Concepts for DARPA's XS-1 spaceplane

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the next few days is expected to select the company that will build its Experimental Spaceplane XS-1 designed to launch military satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as cheaply as possible.

The goal of the XS-1 program is to build a reusable spaceplane that can fly 10 times in 10 days at a cost of no more than $5 million per flight. The XS-1 program began in 2013.

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DARPA wants the first space flight of the XS-1 to occur in 2019 or 2020.

DARPA has entered the final stages of phase two of the selection process involving teams among whose members are many of the leading firms in the U.S. defense industry.

Three industry teams are competing: Boeing and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos' space transport firm); Northrop Grumman allied with plus Virgin Galactic and Masten Space Systems with partner XCOR Aerospace.

This winner of phase two will be awarded the phase three contract to conduct flight tests of the space plane prototype.

DARPA intends each flight of its XS-1 to cost just $5 million, making it over a tenth cheaper than SpaceX.

That compares to $61 million being charged by SpaceX per Falcon 9 flight without the re-usable first stage. With the re-usable first stage, the cost of a Falcon 9 launch should plummet to $43 million.

Launch costs for United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between defense giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin that currently has a lock on all U.S. military space launches comes to $225 million per launch. It cost a staggering $450 million to launch a Space Shuttle.

DARPA said the reusable XS-1 will be a robot space plane without a crew. The successor to the U.S. Space Shuttle, the XS-1 when it enters operational service is expected to have a re-usable first stage similar to the Falcon 9 models that have made two successful re-entry landings since April 2016 on a drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

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