Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Bristol Spaceplanes Ltd


  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 1[2] 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 US competitors.


  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)[3]. 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 revolution.

  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 hindrance.

  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 by BSL.


  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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