The final frontier

As Internet millionaire Mark Shuttleworth spoke of ‘moments of terror’ on his £14m trip to the International Space Station this week, elsewhere a truly pivotal event in the history of space exploration took place.

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency announced it is to fund a demonstration programme to develop a low-cost space shuttle which will be able to take off and land from a runway. The new craft will be largely reusable, though there will still be an expendable rocket stage to put the payload into orbit.

Nasa, meanwhile, announced that a piloted spaceplane the size of a business jet is among 15 different concepts being examined for future launches.

This, it appears, is belated recognition of what a few people have argued for years: that space exploration went in the wrong direction at the outset when it chose ballistic missiles rather than hypersonic spaceplanes – like the X-15 of the 1950s – as its preferred technology.

Darpa’s new launcher is intended only to have the capability for unmanned payloads, but once the technology is proven a manned launcher could follow. Access to space, either for launching satellites or for manned missions, would be cheaper and astronauts would face a less terrifying experience – though whether mass space tourism would be feasible, or even desirable, is another question.

Nonetheless, a handful of UK engineers – such as Alan Bond’s team at Reaction Engines, who worked on British Aerospace’s Hotol project, cancelled in the 1990s, and David Ashford of Bristol Spaceplanes, who worked on Hawker Siddeley’s spaceplane project in the 1960s – are entitled to feel vindicated this week. These individuals have been struggling for years on miniscule budgets to refine the technology and keep alive the dream of a reusable spaceplane.

Part of their motivation was to sustain the prospect of a substantial role for the UK in spaceplane development. Maybe it is not too late for a major player like BAE Systems to bring these pioneers back on board, build on their work and get back in the game.

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