In the future, the United States military will be able to wage entire wars from Earth's orbit using laser-equipped satellites to search out and destroy enemy spacecraft. And to do that, it needs a special kind of rocket to carry the satellites into space over and over, with only a day between launches. Good thing the Department of Defense just gave Boeing a $6.6 million contract to build one.
It's called the XS-1 program — short for Experimental Spaceplane — and it's the first step to sending the next world war into space.
As you might expect, space shuttle launches are expensive as hell; NASA puts the cost at $450 million. While in the past, small satellites would be sent into orbit as part of larger launches, the XS-1 program acts as a way to decrease the cost of launching satellites into space, cutting out the middleman. According to a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency press release from 2014, the ideal vehicle would be able to launch 10 times in 10 days, launch a small, 3,000- to 5,000-pound payload into orbit and cost less than $5 million each flight.
The program would effectively turn years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars of resources into what's essentially the sub-orbital version of shuttling kids to an overnight camp.
"We chose performers who could prudently integrate existing and up-and-coming technologies and operations, while making XS-1 as reliable, easy-to-use and cost-effective as possible," Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager, said in the release. "We're eager to see how their initial designs envision making spaceflight commonplace — with all the potential military, civilian and commercial benefits that capability would provide."
So far, creating a vehicle that can launch, accomplish a mission and then land to be reused has been tough. Even SpaceX, Elon Musk's venerable space startup, couldn't work out the bugs in landing its Falcon 9 spacecraft back in June. As you can see in the GIF below, Falcon 9 tried to land on a floating drone-ship platform and exploded.
This is where Jeff Bezos comes in. Boeing, with all of its mega-corporate aerospace resources, didn't snatch up the contract on its own. For the engine, Boeing teamed up with a Washington-based aerospace manufacturer called Blue Origin, which is helmed by Bezos, Amazon's founder.
Originally, Bezos positioned the company to provide space tourism and payload-delivery systems. But his project turned out to be something much larger: providing efficient, low-cost engines to third-party organizations. Now it's looking like Boeing wants to modify Blue Origin's liquefied natural gas- and liquid nitrogen-fueled BE-4 engine to be the XS-1 power source.
What this comes down to is cost, and how quickly the other global superpowers are entering the orbital sandbox. Great Britain, Japan and Australia were all pissed off in 2007 when China shot its own satellite out of orbit, revealing its ability to shoot down a machine 500 miles from the Earth's surface. It was seen as a sort of humble brag — and a casual warning. More recently, anti-satellite missiles and lasers have been enough to cause some freakouts at the Department of Defense.
The ability to replenish satellites cheaply and quickly could be a great first move in defending America's stake in space — a position on which the U.S. spends $40 billion a year. Much of that funds expensive satellites and launches. So getting the price down to $5 million per trip would mean massive defense budget savings, and fewer reasons to fear the threat of some Chinese missile blasting vital satellites into smithereens.
Even further down the road, it could mean full wars fought by robots with lasers 500 miles above Earth's surface. War could become, essentially, a mechanical chess match, Ender's Game in real life. Of course, it remains to be seen whether that's a good or bad thing.
h/t The Daily Beast