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​An artist rendering of an XS-1 spaceplane. DARPA illustration.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency expects to award a contract for the XS-1 spaceplane program “soon,” according to an agency spokesman. Rick Weiss said DARPA is in the final stages of a “downselect” to choose one company to proceed into the flying phase of the spaceplane, which is meant to be a two-stage to orbit vehicle potentially able to bring down the cost of space lift “by orders of magnitude,” according to DARPA’s website. Weiss acknowledged that program plans had anticipated getting contracting completed by early this year, but added that delays are not unusual when so many new technologies and capabilities are being integrated within an ambitious program such as XS-1. Phase I of the program explored concepts offered by Boeing partnered with Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems teamed with XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman working with Virgin Galactic. However, the Phase II contractor won’t necessarily be chosen from the three Phase I participants. After downselect, a critical design review would take place in 2018 and a series of flights could be made as early as 2020. One of the program requirements is to fly 10 suborbital or orbital missions in as many days, achieving space operations with “aircraft-like” frequency, DARPA said. If successful, a “public-private partnership” model of operating the vehicles could be adopted, DARPA documents show.