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The first version of XSPEC was written in 1983 at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, under VAX/VMS by Rick Shafer. It was written to perform spectral analysis of data from the ESA EXOSAT X-ray observatory, which was launched that year. XSPEC is a descendant of a series of spectral-fitting programs written at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center for the OSO-8, HEAO-1 and EO missions. The initial design was the fruit of many discussions between Rick Shafer and Andy Szymkowiak.

Rick Shafer subsequently joined the EXOSAT group, where he enhanced the VAX/VMS version in collaboration with Frank Haberl. Meanwhile, Keith Arnaud ported XSPEC to a Sun/UNIX operating system. The two implementations of XSPEC diverged for several years until a determined and coordinated effort was made to recover a single version. The results of that effort was XSPECv6, described in the first edition of this manual. Subsequent editions have covered later versions of the program.

An extensive re-engineering effort was started in the fall of 1998 to improve long-term maintainability, allow significant new features to be added, and support the analysis of spectra from coded-mask instruments.