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Announcement for suborbital XS1 expected in October

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A new space technology is expected to take off in the next few months, according to the deputy director for the tactical technology office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The Experimental Spaceplane, or XS1, is a suborbital hypersonic vehicle with lofty goals, said Pamela Melroy, who spoke Thursday at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, or AIAA, Space Conference and Exposition.

The Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program helps enable access to space. Melroy said it aims for $1 million, including range costs, to get to low Earth orbit. Space is said to be “increasingly congested and contested and competitive,” Melroy said.

“What’s interesting is that is it’s not just congested from the standpoint of the number of operators, but also competition for spectrum as well. At the same time, we have tremendous cost challenges,” Melroy said.

A big focus for DARPA today is cost effectiveness, Melroy said.

“It makes a lot of sense to develop capabilities that are inexpensive to maintain but very expensive to counter,” Melroy said.

The goal of the XS1 is to “enable routine access in a larger payload class — looking more at the 1,000 to 4,000-pound class and shoot for $5 million a pop,” Melroy said. Other goals are to launch 10 times in 10 days and to achieve Mach 10.

She said DARPA hopes to have a broad agency announcement in the next month or so and an Industry Day for proposals in early October. The program isn’t limited to winged or non-winged vehicles, it just needs to be reusable first stage, she said.

Melroy said getting to Mach 10 is the bigger reach, and “one of the most important aspects of DARPA is that we’re not really afraid of failing.”

“The only tragedy in my mind is when you failed the program because you didn’t execute the program right. … But if you failed because of technology, that’s great,” Melroy said, adding that there are lessons to be learned from failures that can be used to advance.

DARPA was formed by President Dwight Eisenhower after Sputnik was launched, to commission advanced research for the Department of Defense, and to prevent and create strategic surprise, Melroy said.

“We actually try to create the future. We try to develop technologies so we can direct future outcomes so that we are not surprised by the way the world is developing,” Melroy said.

She added that DARPA is looking for “big wins” in its programs, and it doesn’t do evolutionary capability.

“Ten, 20, 30 percent incremental improvement over current capability is not an interest to us. We’re looking for radical and disruptive changes,” Melroy said.

DARPA is about demonstrations, and Melroy said it’s not enough just to experiment — proposals have to actually prove it. DARPA is focusing on leveraging unmanned capabilities and is also committed to space situational awareness.

“The problem is, if you can’t find the threat, it doesn’t matter if you can do anything about it,” Melroy said.

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