The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to build an unmanned plane that can fly into space and land back on Earth, and Northrop Grumman Corp. and its partners are trying to figure out how to do it.

If successful, Northrop engineers in Redondo Beach could land a contract that could boost Los Angeles County’s aerospace industry – a sector that’s lost roughly two-thirds of its workforce since 1990.

The company launched its bid in conjunction with Scaled Composites of Mojave and Virgin Galactic in Las Cruces, N.M., part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group Ltd.

But creating a reusable launch vehicle, which would be called the XS-1, is a Herculean task. Apart from NASA’s space shuttle and an unmanned Soviet look-alike that flew a single mission in 1988, none has succeeded. Recent history is strewn with the husks of failed space-plane projects that died due to technical and financial burdens that proved too much to overcome. That’s why some see the goal of creating a true space plane as the Holy Grail of space flight.

Read the full story in the September 15 weekly edition of the Business Journal.