Northrop Grumman [NOC] is developing a preliminary design and flight demonstration plan for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Experimental Spaceplane XS-1 program, according to a company statement.

Northrop Grumman is working with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic on the program.

XS-1 has a reusable booster that, when coupled with an expendable upper stage, provides affordable, available and responsive space lift for 3,000-pound class spacecraft into low earth orbit (LEO). Reusable boosters with aircraft-like operations provide a breakthrough in space lift costs for this payload class, enabling new generations of lower cost, innovative and more resilient spacecraft.

Artist's illustration of Northrop Grumman's XS-1 experimental spaceplane concept. Photo: Northrop Grumman.
Artist’s illustration of Northrop Grumman’s XS-1 experimental spaceplane concept. Photo: Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman is defining its concept for XS-1 under a 13-month, phase one contract valued at $3.9 million. In addition to low cost launch, the XS-1 would serve as a test-bed for a new generation of hypersonic aircraft. Boeing [BA] (with Blue Origin) and Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace) are also developing their own XS-1 concepts for DARPA.

As part of Northrop Grumman’s team, Scaled Composites will lead fabrication and assembly while Virgin Galactic will head commercial spaceplane operations and transition. Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems Vice President for Missile Defense and Advanced Missions Doug Young said in a statement the company has previously worked with Virgin Galactic on Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo space vehicle.

Northrop Grumman’s XS-1 space vehicle would include: a clean pad launch using a transporter erector launcher, minimal infrastructure and ground crew; highly autonomous flight operations that leverage the company’s unmanned systems experience and aircraft-like horizontal landing and recovery on standard runways.

The XS-1 program aims to develop a fully-reusable unmanned vehicle that would provide aircraft-like access to space and deploy small satellites to orbit using expendable upper stages. XS-1 seeks to deploy small satellites faster, more affordably and develop technology for next-generation hypersonic vehicles (Defense Daily, July 15).