Industry calls for urgent space rocket re-launch

An industry report is expected to endorse future UK involvement in rocket launcher development and pressurise the government into a review of current space policy.

It follows Parliamentary criticism of science minister Lord Sainsbury’s decision in 1999 not to participate in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Future Launch Technologies programme.

Preliminary results of a survey of the potential market for re-usable space launchers, reported last week at a meeting of the UK Industry Space Committee, were described as positive. The committee represents businesses with a total turnover of £750m. The full report will be filed by late March.

Alan Bond, UKISC member and managing director of Reaction Engines, designer of a re-useable space plane called Skylon, said: ‘Results are encouraging but it will be some months before the work is completed.’

The UKISC told Parliament’s trade and industry committee last year that the failure of the government to support launcher development means the UK aerospace industry faces being overtaken by European competitors.

The subsequent parliamentary report, published last July, urged a review of policy towards satellite rocket launcher development. Six months later, no action has been taken.

Dr Robert Parkinson, chairman of the rocket launcher sub-committee of UKISC said: ‘Those in the launch business want the review to happen immediately.’

The trade and industry select committee has said an independent body should undertake the review instead of the government’s own British National Space Centre. ‘It is our impression that in BNSC there is a less-than-open mind on government assistance to launcher development,’ said its report.

The ESA, Japan, and NASA (The Engineer, 5 January) are all developing new launcher technology. The ESA programme will develop re-useable space planes for commercial operation by 2015.

Before Sainsbury’s decision, UK industry was asking for £4.5m to participate in the European research programme — 2% to 3% of the Future Launch Technologies total budget.

Sources inside the industry say they would prefer the DTI’s aviation department to carry out any future work on launchers because the BNSC is too focused on satellites.