Is space our?
The attention of the whole world is riveted to Ilon Mask, who in all seriousness declares his desire to move a million people to Mars. Of no less interest are the very real successes of SpaceX in creating a relatively cheap and affordable medium - Falcon 9. In Russia, they traditionally discuss Angara, promising "Federation" and "Soyuz-5", and also dream of landing on a satellite of our planet.
At the same time, many lose sight of the rapid militarization of outer space, which, if it has not reached the time of the Cold War, is eager to strive for it. The United States is making the most efforts in this direction, having, of course, the most money and the greatest technical capabilities.
Recall that in 2013, the American defense research agency DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced the launch of the XS-1 program, the purpose of which was to obtain an inexpensive reusable device that could quickly put a small satellite or satellites into orbit. The payload was supposed to be about one and a half tons at a launch price of around five million dollars. This is extremely small - more than ten times less than the launch price of the Falcon 9 mentioned above and even lower than the launch cost of Rocket Lab’s latest ultra-light Electron rocket. Recall that now for the orbit of small military satellites, the United States uses a disposable Minotaur IV lightweight launch vehicle that can bring payloads weighing up to 1725 kilograms into low Earth orbit (DOE). In 2013, the price of one launch of this carrier was $ 50 million ...
There is another feature of the XS-1. Perhaps even more significant. According to the requirements, the promising device was supposed to provide ten launches in ten days. No other existing or even promising medium is capable of this.
American History XS
A number of companies expressed their desire to participate in the program, which was soon renamed XSP. In the end, DARPA elected Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne. The latter was supposed to deliver an engine, namely the AR-22. At the heart of the design of this engine are developments on the RS-25, which was previously installed on Space Shuttle.
The device itself was seen as a spaceplane with a consumable second stage, which satellites were supposed to display. The reusable carrier had to come back after landing and sit down, like a regular airplane. Phantom Express was supposed to take off vertically. The size of the spaceplane should have been comparable with the size of a large twin-engine fighter of the fourth generation or even slightly larger.
In 2018, it became known that Boeing began construction of the first Phantom Express flight model. As of November of the year before last, they completed the production of a fuel tank for liquid oxygen and began production of a tank for liquid hydrogen. As the first flight, Phantom Express was called the year 2021.
Winners ... are judged
The future of the complex seemed bright: Boeing had enormous experience in the space industry, and the state generously paid for a promising undertaking. Back in 2017, the company as the winner of the competition received $ 146 million for the project, which, of course, was only the beginning.
However, in January 2020, Boeing suddenly refused to participate in the program. And he did it in a very original way. “After a detailed review, Boeing immediately terminates its participation in the Experimental Spaceplane (XSP) program,” said company spokesman Jerry Drelling. “Now we will redirect our investments from XSP to other Boeing programs that cover the maritime, air and space sectors.” DARPA confirmed that the company notified the agency of its decision to withdraw from the Phantom Express development program.
Boeing’s solution, actually ending the XSP program, adds another chapter to history DARPA's failed efforts to develop a low-cost affordable medium. Earlier, we recall that the agency launched the ALASA program: the F-15 Eagle fighter was chosen as the platform. He had to launch a rocket that would put small satellites into orbit. In 2015, the program was closed after a series of unsuccessful trials.
The first reason for the new failure is seen (at least from the outside) as Boeing’s grave problems caused by the crash of the Boeing 737 MAX near Jakarta in 2018 and the crash of the same aircraft near Addis Ababa in March 2019. Recall that in both cases, the experts blamed the MCAS stabilization system, which made the aircraft uncontrollable under certain circumstances. Further checks revealed numerous security breaches, and it was not only about MCAS.
Recently, Boeing shares during trading on the Nasdaq US stock exchange lost 4%: this happened after the company announced a delay in the resumption of flights of 737 MAX aircraft. Recall, the airline said that it expects the model 737 MAX to return to service no earlier than in the middle of this year. By the standards of the modern world, this is a lot.
Most likely, we will never know about the real state of affairs in the case of Phantom Express and the reasons for rejecting the program. However, it is worth noting one more important circumstance. The fact is that the United States already has at its disposal a reusable and multi-purpose spacecraft. We are talking about the unmanned spacecraft Boeing X-37: like his brother, he takes off vertically and lands like an airplane. Theoretically, a spaceplane can be used to put various spacecraft into orbit.
However, there is one important difference from Phantom Express. The X-37B is launched into orbit in the head fairing of a conventional launch vehicle. This, undoubtedly, will not allow achieving profitability indicators, at least remotely comparable with those of Phantom Express.
At the same time, the X-37 itself has even more secrets than a failed spaceship: the public still does not know why the US military needs such an apparatus. Someone sees it simply as a test bench for working out technologies for launching satellites into space, while others say that we can talk about a prototype of a “space interceptor”.
One thing is clear: the capabilities of the X-37 are more than serious. In October last year, the American spacecraft set a new record, having been in orbit for more than two years, namely - 780 days. At that time, the number of days spent in orbit under this program was 2865 days. The X-37B mini-shuttle “is capable of forming an orbit that looks like an egg and, when it is near the Earth, it is close enough to the atmosphere to turn around at that moment. So, our enemies do not know this, because everything happens on the opposite side of the Earth. And we are aware that this is driving them crazy. I’m very glad, ”said former US Air Force Minister Heather Wilson, which added confidence to the conspiracy theorists.