Northrop Grumman Experimental Spaceplane concept

Northrop Grumman has revealed its conceptual design for DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1), which is being developed in partnership with Virgin Galactic.

Northrop Grumman also revealed that Scaled Composites (a Northrop Grumman subsidiary) will play a key role in the 13-month, $3.9 million phase-one effort.

Scaled Composites of Mojave will lead spaceplane fabrication and assembly, while Virgin Galactic heads the transition to commercial spaceplane operations. (One of DARPA’s goals is to transfer spaceplane technology to a military or commercial operator).

The reusable spaceplane is intended to achieve aircraft-like operations, providing a breakthrough in launch costs. With an expendable upper stage, it will place up to 3,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, enabling new generations of innovative, lower-cost payloads.

A key program goal is to fly ten times in ten days, with minimal infrastructure and ground crew. DARPA believes that reusable aircraft-like operations could reduce military and commercial launch costs by a factor of ten.

Northrop Grumman says the design will be built around operability and affordability. Aircraft-like features include clean-pad launch using a transporter/erector/launcher, minimal infrastructure and ground crew; highly autonomous flight operations; and horizontal landing and recovery on standard runways.

Written by Astro1 on August 19th, 2014 , Military Space, Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic

Scaled Composites SpaceShip One / White Knight

Ten years ago today, on 21 June 2004, Mike Melvill flew SpaceShip One to an altitude of 100.124 kilometers, becoming the first pilot to qualify for the FAA’s commercial astronaut wings. The flight was a milestone for Scaled Composites in its quest to win the $10-million Ansari X-Prize, which was finally won on 4 October 2004.

At the time, many people assumed that suborbital spaceflight would soon be commonplace. Today, however, some view the event with ambiguity, if not disappointment, as commercial suborbital flights have not yet begun.

When viewed in systems-engineering terms, the delay in the start of the commercial operations should not be considered surprising, though, or cause for great concern. The late G. Harry Stine pointed out that human beings tend to view progress in linear terms. Our brains are hard-wired that way. But, in fact, technological progress and economic growth (like biological growth and most other natural phenomena) are not linear. They follow exponential growth curves.

As a result, Stine pointed out, human beings almost always overestimate what can be accomplished in the near term and underestimate what can be accomplished in the long term.

What we are seeing today, with delays in suborbital spaceflight, confirms the first half of Stine’s prediction. There is every reason to believe that suborbital spaceflight will confirm the second half of his prediction, too, in the years to confirm — as did computing, communications, aviation, and many other industries.

Written by Astro1 on June 21st, 2014 , Scaled Composites


Before he was recruited by XCOR Aerospace, Brian Binnie gave Forbes magazine adventure columnist Jim Clash this interview about winning the Ansari X-Prize.

Written by Astro1 on April 4th, 2014 , Scaled Composites, XCOR Aerospace

Tim Pickens, who developed the propulsion system for SpaceShip One, talks about the significance of the project.


Written by Astro1 on April 11th, 2013 , Innovation, Scaled Composites, Space History

Burt Rutan recently gave a talk at the UP Experience, a one-day creative conference in Houston, during which he offered some useful insights into suborbital spaceflight as an enabler.


Written by Astro1 on November 26th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Scaled Composites

Virgin Galactic has acquired full interest in The SpaceShip Company, previously a joint venture of Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. A brief press release appeared late yesterday afternoon:

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Written by Astro1 on October 6th, 2012 , Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic

Burt Rutan has posted the slides from a presentation on Commercial Space Future Opportunities.

The presentation provides some interesting insights on Rutan’s personal vision for where SpaceShip Two is going. (This personal vision does not necessarily reflect the official policies of Virgin Galactic or even Scaled Composites, from which Rutan is now retired.)

For suborbital spaceflight, Rutan envisions “multi-spaceport operations with 40 spaceships” and competing spacelines flying over 100,000 people during the first 12 years of commercial operations. Although it is not explicitly stated, we’re guessing this means competing spacelines flying spaceships developed by Scaled Composites and does not consider competing designs. (Scaled has stated, in the past, that Virgin Galactic is the launch customer for SpaceShip Two but there would be other customers in the future.)

Rutan notes that ticket prices for suborbital flights are about 1% of those for orbital flights. He expects that prices for both will come down significantly as volume increases but the ratio between the two prices will remain about the same.

Written by Astro1 on August 22nd, 2012 , Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic

Aviation Week reports that Virgin Galactic is developing a liquid-propellant engine that will ultimately replace the hybrid rocket motor used in SpaceShip Two.

This report is being treated as a revelation, but it’s not really surprising. Doug Shane of Scaled Composites spoke of such a possibility at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Responsive Access to Space Technology Exchange conference back in 2006. Shane, who later replaced Burt Rutan as president of Scaled, said that changing out hybrid motors after each flight was an acceptable way of getting the suborbital spaceflight business started but they would want to switch to a “different kind of engine” at some point.

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Written by Astro1 on July 24th, 2012 , Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic

Eight years ago today, Mike Melvill flew SpaceShip One to an altitude of 100.124 kilometers, becoming the first pilot to qualify for the FAA’s commercial astronaut wings.

In centuries to come, June 21, 2004 will be remembered as the start of the real Space Age – the era when humans finally began to open up space in large numbers.

Today, however, it will pass largely unnoticed. The so-called “New Space” groups have their big parties to celebrate the launch of Yuri Gagarin and every Apollo landing. (There’s not much new about in “New” Space.)

We won’t be celebrating today, either. It’s been eight years since the X-Prize, and commercial suborbital flights haven’t started yet. The future is behind schedule. So, today is a day to remember but not to celebrate. That will come when the work is done.

Written by Astro1 on June 21st, 2012 , Scaled Composites, Space History

The SpaceShip Two flight-test program may be experiencing some delays, if a new article in Flight Global is accurate.

The article quotes an unnamed Virgin Galactic source saying the company would have “some drop tests” in June or July and “a lot of drop tests” in the third quarter.

That would indicate progress for SpaceShip Two, which has not flown since it entered a deep stall during its last glide flight on September 29, 2011. It would be slower progress than recently expected, however. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides had been predicting powered flights this summer. According to the new article, powered test flights are now expected to begin around the end of the year. By interesting coincidence, that’s the same time frame in which XCOR Aerospace expects to begin powered test flights of the Lynx.

Editorial note: We are not suggesting that Virgin Galactic / Scaled Composites and XCOR are in a race. Timelines for flight test are properly dictated by engineering and safety considerations. Both organizations have shown a high degree of professionalism, and we are confident that neither will allow its engineering judgement to be compromised by a “racing” mentality.

Written by Astro1 on May 11th, 2012 , Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace

Scaled Composites recently completed the ninth full-scale firing of the RM2 rocket motor that will power SpaceShip Two. Scaled performed a 10-second burn followed by a 58-second burn, according to the test log.

The test continued evaluation of all systems and components including pressurization, valve/injector, fuel formulation and geometry, nozzle, structure, and performance. Scaled performed the first test-firing of a full-scale RM2 in April of 2009.

Virgin Galactic has stated that it intends to begin testing motors in powered flight on SpaceShip around the middle of this year.