Memorandum submitted by Bristol Spaceplanes
1. Bristol Spaceplanes Limited (BSL) is
an innovative aerospace company working towards the development
of reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) intended to greatly reduce
the cost of access to space. Original analysis by BSL indicates
that a revolution in space business is imminent. Within a period
of about 10 years the cost of launching satellites is likely to
fall to a hundredth of present values, and entirely new industries
such as space tourism will have started.
2. BSL has developed a low-cost and low-risk
strategy that could enable the UK to take the lead in the new
commercial space vehicle industry. This industry and associated
services has been conservatively projected to be worth £10
billion per annum within 10 years.
3. Only limited HMG support is needed, to
boost BSL credibility with the private sector finance community.
However, present UK space policy does not support even studies
of British RLVs and their new applications. There is therefore
a high risk of the benefits of British pioneering work being lost
to the US. Moreover, there is a risk of many current space projects
soon being rendered obsolete, several of which involve expenditure
by HMG. A change in HMG space policies is needed to prevent these
risks from being realized.
4. BSL's analysis is described in Appendix
and can be summarised as follows:
4.1 The technology now exists for a small
company to develop an RLV. The X-15 research aeroplane demonstrated
the required technology in the 1960s. It remains the only fully
reusable complete vehicle system to have reached space. It last
flew in 1968. However, RLVs have never been developed, presumably
because government space agencies have not been seriously interested
in low-cost commercial manned spaceflight.
4.2 A study carried out by BSL for ESA in
1994 showed that an economical RLV could be built with existing
engines and conventional materials (Appendix 2) 1 and that enlarged
and mature versions would reduce the cost of manned spaceflight
by a factor of 1,000. These conclusions were broadly endorsed
by an independent review commissioned by the then Minister for
Space, Ian Taylor (Appendix 3) 1. More recently, several US private
companies have started to develop RLVs using existing technology.
4.3 Early RLVs will largely replace expendable
vehicles for launching satellites and supplying space stations.
Thereafter, their largest market will be carrying passengers to
space, initially on sub-orbital flights and then to space hotels.
This market will be large enough to provide the commercial incentive
to develop early RLVs to airliner standards of safety, reliability,
life and utilisation. The cost of a visit to space will then be
affordable by middle income people prepared to save. The major
development required is a rocket motor with long life and low
maintenance cost. The approximate timescale is five years to develop
a prototype RLV suitable for launching satellites, followed by
10 years to approach airliner maturity.
4.4 The least costly way of demonstrating
the potential of RLVs is to build a prototype sub-orbital spaceplane
(ie, an aeroplane-like RLV capable of reaching space height but
not fast enough to stay up like a satellite). A leading example
is BSL's Ascender (Appendix 4) 1 which is like an updated X-15.
A prototype of Ascender could be flying to space and back from
airports in Britain within three years for around £50 million.
This cost is substantially less than that of any of the major
5. The above conclusions were published
more than 10 years ago, and have received enough publicity to
be well known to those interested in RLVs. In March 1998 NASA
published the report of their joint study with the STA of space
tourism "General Public Space Travel and Tourism" (Appendix
5)1. It concluded that commercial passenger travel to space is
now a realistic prospect, and is likely to become the largest
commercial use of space. It referred extensively to pioneering
UK work in this field, including that of BSL. However, NASA is
not seriously following the implications of this report, presumably
due to self-interest in preserving government subsidies. ESA also
decided recently to spend nothing on space tourism studies. Thus,
while both agencies have a responsibility to promote new commercial
space ventures, neither is taking seriously the business that
many people now think is going to dominate space activities soon.
6. Within the last five years or so, around
a dozen new private start-up companies in the US have started
to develop RLVs (Appendix 6).
They are motivated by profit and by frustration at NASA's failure
to develop an RLV years ago to reduce launch costs. Many of these
companies have space tourism as the ultimate objective. In addition,
NASA are part-funding the development of two experimental spaceplanes,
the X-34 and X-33, which are due to fly this year and next, respectively.
7. Several of these private US companies
appear to have realistic designs and competent management, and
are evidence of the soundness of the earlier analysis by BSL.
None has yet achieved the funding needed to complete a prototype.
However, the market for sub-orbital tourism is rapidly gaining
credibility, and it is surely only a matter of time before one
of them does indeed receive this backing. Developments thereafter
are likely to be rapid, and Britain therefore has a small window
of opportunity to claim a lead in this new industry.
8. The implications for space policy are
revolutionary. Travel to and from orbit will become like an airline
business, probably within about 15 years, with a similar boost
to the UK and world economies.
9. BSL's strategy has lower cost and risk
than any other company's published strategy, due to an innovative
design and business model. The UK has all the required technology
except for rocket motors, which are available commercially. The
UK is therefore well placed to take the lead in the spaceflight
10. BSL has an excellent design, an excellent
core team in waiting, and a strong business plan. Its main problem
is raising finance as a result of low credibility with investors.
The disinterest of government space agencies has been a major
11. BSL needs only seedcorn funding from
HMG to begin active development and to establish sufficient credibility
to stimulate business investment. Although BSL began a dialogue
with BNSC 10 years ago, pointing out the potential for the UK
to lead the development of large new commercial markets for RLVs
and their applications, this support has not so far been forthcoming.
12. BNSC did go as far as helping BSL to
obtain the feasibility study contract from ESA mentioned earlier.
The conclusions indicated a far more cost effective approach to
RLVs and manned spaceflight than that being proposed by ESA. Nonetheless,
BNSC have since done nothing to help British RLVs. BSL applications
for grants from various BNSC/DTI innovation support schemes have
usually met with the response that our proposals are not in line
with UK space policy, which does not support launch vehicle development
or manned spaceflight.
13. BSL showed more than 10 years ago that
government space agencies should take the development of low-cost
manned space transportation seriously. Recent developments in
the US provide good evidence for this claim. If the BSL analysis
is correct then within three years sub-orbital passenger flights
will be seen as the most important growth area in aerospace. In
order for the UK to benefit from pioneering British work and not
lose competitive advantage to the US, HMG need to act quickly
to support innovative space activities such as those proposed
14. Several US private companies have started
to develop piloted reusable launch vehicles using existing technology.
Several of these companies see space tourism as the largest new
commercial use of space. These developments are likely to lead
to airline-like transport to orbit, probably within 15 years.
15. Much of the pioneering work has been
carried out in the UK. We have world-class ideas, most of the
required technology, and few vested interests in the way of the
paradigm shift. No more than seedcorn support is needed from HMG
to enable the embryonic UK reusable launch vehicle industry to
expand rapidly and play a leading part in the spaceflight revolution.
UK space policy needs to be changed to allow this to happen. Otherwise,
competitive advantage will be lost to the US and other countries.
15 February 2000
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