The internet has been abuzz with stories about a new US space weapons programme, all based on an erroneous report in the Washington Post about one of my favourite DARPA projects - the Falcon hypersonic cruise vehicle technology demonstrator.
Falcon has been around for yonks, but the Post managed to mangle the wording of the House-Senate conference report on the 2008 defence budget. This zeroed out the US Navy's Conventional Trident Modification programme to convert nuclear missiles into precision bombers, but provided $100 million for a new Prompt Global Strike programme. The money came from CTM and the US Air Force's Common Aero Vehicle project to develop a conventional-warhead ballistic missile re-entry vehicle - but is not going to Falcon, as the Post reported.
There is a connection, of course. DARPA's Falcon programme is developing technology for an unmanned hypersonic attacker able to strike anywhere in the world within 2 hours. But it has also sponsored work on small boosters - SpaceX's Falcon I and AirLaunch's QuickReach - that could launch the unpowered Falcon hypersonic technology demonstrators as well as the USAF's CAV...or form the basis of a prompt global strike weapon.
But the Falcon programme has had as many changes of direction as Britney Spears has had lapses of dress code. The initial HTV-1 demonstrator was dropped after it proved unproducible. Now Falcon prime contractor Lockheed Martin is working on the more advanced HTV-2, which is planned to fly in 2008. The expendable HTV-2 will be launched by a rocket (Orbital Sciences' Minotaur) to demonstrate aerodynamics and materials needed for sustained hypersonic cruise.
Meanwhile...Lockheed is designing the HTV-3X, a powered, reusable demonstrator that would be able to take off, accelerate to hypersonic speed, cruise at Mach 10, then return to a runway landing. The HTV-3X, to be renamed the Blackswift if DARPA secures funding for the demonstration in 2009, would be powered by turbojet/scramjet combined-cycle engines. To see how it's supposed to work, check out this cool video (and, yes, engineers didn't look like that when I was one...)
So, back to that Washington Post story. Rather than give the $100 million to Falcon, the Congressional conferees actually created a new conventional prompt global strike programme to look at things like propulsion and guidance systems, re-entry vehicles, command and control, intermediate-range missile concepts and advanced non-nuclear warheads. More realistic, maybe, but I'll keep my fingers crossed for Falcon.