Phantom Express: The Spaceplane That Never Was

Even for those of us who follow space news closely, there’s a lot to keep track of these days. Private companies are competing to develop new human-rated spacecraft and assembling satellite mega-constellations, while NASA is working towards a return the Moon and the first flight of the SLS. Between new announcements, updates to existing missions, and literal rocket launches, things are happening on a nearly daily basis. It’s fair to say we haven’t seen this level of activity since the Space Race of the 1960s.

With so much going on, it’s no surprise that not many people have heard of the XS-1 Phantom Express. A project by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the XS-1 was designed to be a reusable launch system that could put small payloads into orbit on short notice. Once its mission was complete, the vehicle was to return to the launch site and be ready for re-flight in as a little as 24 hours.

Alternately referred to as the “DARPA Experimental Spaceplane”, the vehicle was envisioned as being roughly the size of a business jet and capable of carrying a payload of up to 2,300 kilograms (5,000 pounds). It would take off vertically under rocket power and then glide back to Earth at the end of the mission to make a conventional runway landing. At $5 million per flight, its operating costs would be comparable with even the most aggressively priced commercial launch providers; but with the added bonus of not having to involve a third party in military and reconnaissance missions which would almost certainly be classified in nature.

Or at least, that was the idea. Flight tests were originally scheduled to begin this year, but earlier this year prime contractor Boeing abruptly dropped out of the program. Despite six years in development and over $140 million in funding awarded by DARPA, it’s now all but certain that the XS-1 Phantom Express will never get off the ground. Which is a shame, as even in a market full of innovative launch vehicles, this unique spacecraft offered some compelling advantages.

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The Largest Aircraft Ever Built Will Soon Launch Rockets To Space

Deep in the mojave, the largest aircraft ever made will soon be making test flights. This is the Stratolaunch, and it’s measured the largest to ever fly based on wingspan. The Stratolaunch was constructed out of two 747s, and is designed for a single purpose: as a mobile launch platform for orbital rockets.

There are a couple of ways to measure the size of an aircraft. The AN-225 Mriya has the highest payload capacity, but only one of those was ever built (though that might change soon). The Spruce Goose was formerly the largest aircraft by wingspan, but it only flew once, and only in ground effect. The Stratolaunch is in another category entirely. This is an aircraft that contains some of the largest composite structures on the planet. Not only can you park a school bus between the fuselages of the Stratolaunch, you can strap that school bus to the plane and carry it up to 30,000 feet.

But why build this astonishing aircraft? The reasons go back more than a decade, and the end result is a spaceplane.

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