The UK could be at the forefront of a revolution in space flight and grab a dominant role in a huge emerging market for reusable spaceplanes, if it moves decisively now. Spaceplanes could slash the cost of launching communications satellites and other space activities. The key is first to unlock the market for space tourism.
This is the message that David Ashford, managing director of Bristol Spaceplanes, will expound when he delivers the Institution of Incorporated Engineers’ national lecture later this month.
It is a big claim for a man leading a company of only 10 part-time staff. But Ashford is no eccentric inventor; he is an experienced aeronautical engineer and a former aerodynamicist with British Aerospace. His first job, in the 1960s, was with a Hawker Siddeley team developing spaceplanes. ‘We thought we could do it,’ Ashford says. ‘It seemed the obvious thing to do next.’
He defines spaceplanes as fully reusable craft capable of reaching space, or 50 miles or more above the earth’s surface. Like aircraft, they would take off from a runway.
Thirty years ago, the US built three examples of its X-15 spaceplane, a piloted, hypersonic research aircraft. Launched from a modified B-52, it made 199 flights between 1959 and 1962. Ashford sees it as the only true spaceplane to date Nasa’s Space Shuttle not being fully reusable.
But Nasa and the European Space Agency decided their priorities lay elsewhere. Ashford says the commercial incentive was not strong enough then. But, he argues, ‘two things have happened in the past five years to change that’.
The first is the need to put thousands of small communications satellites, weighing around a ton, into low orbits. A number of US firms are working to develop a re-usable satellite launcher, and Ashford thinks one of them will succeed. But it will not have what he calls ‘airliner maturity’ capable of doing several flights a day, with a turn round time measured in hours, and with a life of at least 10 years.
This brings him to the second change in the commercial climate: space tourism. US companies are taking bookings for passenger flights to the edges of space, or for short breaks at yet-to-be-built space hotels.
‘Space tourism could have a bigger market than communication satellites,’ says Ashford, ‘enough to get a really good return on investment. It will drive developments to get spaceplane costs down from prototype level to maturity.’ The main technological development needed is a longer-lasting rocket engine.
This will slash the costs of all forms of space activity. As Ashford will stress to the IIE, ‘by developing a small orbital spaceplane using existing technology, the European Space Agency or Nasa could pioneer low-cost space access and save money.’
Ashford has made a business case which puts the cost of putting a person in orbit in a spaceplane using mature technology at $10,000. By coincidence, market surveys have identified this as the figure people would pay for a trip into space.
The US may appear to be in an unassailable position to develop a spaceplane, with at least four consortia already working on reusable launchers. But Ashford has a strategy to help the UK gain the initiative. The first step is to build a prototype, called the Ascender, capable of carrying four people and a 200kg payload to a height of 60 miles.
This would be a demonstrator for the Spacecab, a small orbital spaceplane capable of carrying six people or launching a one-tonne satellite. The next step would be a spacebus to carry a five-tonne satellite or 50 people, which in 15 years could take fare-paying passengers into orbit.
Updating the X-15
Ascender would be an updated X-15, made of lightweight aluminium. It would cost less than £50m, Ashford believes. Crucially, its test flights could be put to commercial use carrying instruments for experiments in atmospheric science, astronomy and microgravity perhaps with a scientist going along or for high-level photography.
After a thousand flights it could gain a certificate of airworthiness to allow it to take passengers for a flight to the edge of space: high enough for the sky to turn black and to gain spectacular views of the earth. This could happen by 2005, says Ashford.
‘The Americans are going for the small satellite market straight away,’ he says. As a result, the development costs of the reusable vehicles they are proposing are higher, and they are not being designed with passenger carrying in mind. The Nasa-backed X-33, for example, will still take off vertically and will be pilotless.
‘The Ascender would be ready to carry passengers before they would,’ says Ashford. ‘The jackpot will go to the first spaceplane with a certificate of airworthiness.’
But, he warns, ‘we’re running out of time’. Bristol Spaceplane’s efforts have met with frustration. ESA paid Ashford to undertake a feasibility study in 1993 which was independently verified as being technically sound. ESA then set up a spaceplane programme, but since the UK did not sign up to it, ESA can spend no money on spaceplanes in the UK and Ashford cannot talk to ESA’s team.
So he is seeking funding for a demonstration Ascender airframe under a fixed-price contract, or a partnership to do the same thing: ‘Any high-tech mechanical or aerospace company could do it,’ he says.
‘If I could get backing for Ascender, the UK would be a major player in a big, new market for the aerospace industry. If we don’t move quickly we’ll be bit players.’
David Ashford delivers the IIE National Lecture ‘The Imminent Space Revolution how the UK can take the lead’ on 27 October at the Institution of Civil Engineers in London. Tickets are free from the IIE.
David Ashford at a glance
Education: BSc in aeronautical engineering, Imperial College; postgraduate research on rocket motor combustion instability at Princeton, NJ.
First job: aerodynamicist on Hawker Siddeley spaceplane design team, 1961. Worked on DC-10, Concorde and Skylark sounding rocket.
Current job: Founder and managing director, Bristol Spaceplanes