Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 5

Submission from Reaction Engines

  The Case for a Review of UK Participation in the Development of Cheap Access to Space


  The UK economy draws heavily on space services for domestic, maritime and military communications, remote sensing and surveillance, satellite navigation, environmental monitoring and meteorology. In these areas the UK is one of the World's largest consumers, with an annual space industry turnover of over £5 billion.

  It is hard to reconcile the UK economy's role as a major beneficiary of these space services with its disinterest in developing technology that could more than halve the cost of their use.

  The UK Government has invested very little in the development of space launcher technology over the past 35 years. While the Government claims this is not Policy, the statistical evidence clearly shows that this is de facto the case. Submissions by Reaction Engines Ltd. (REL) to many past Space Policy Reviews and the previous Select Committee Review in 2000 have made no impression on this `Policy', despite favourable arguments that some measure of UK support for participating in launcher development is justified.

  This submission argues that there is a strong case for creating a body to review this situation in depth. Chaired by a neutral non-Governmental body, and with broad expertise at committee level, this should allow an unbiased conclusion to be reached and a real Launcher Policy to be formulated.

  Clearly Reaction Engines, embodied in its Investors and Staff, strongly believes that the Government is incorrect in its view that the UK should only be a user of space services and not a participant in the creation of enabling technology. This belief has been made concrete by the private investment of several million pounds in developing totally new technologies which could realise a great step in capability and a large reduction in the cost of access to space.

  The following discussion draws upon economic, strategic and social arguments that support the need for an urgent review of this aspect of Space Policy. Urgency is advocated to stem the steady erosion of an advantage won by private innovation and perception in the face of Government apathy.


  A large factor in the cost of providing space services is the spacecraft themselves. These are complex and have to be very reliable, as a result of the impact of potentially lost revenue over the time while a replacement for any failure is readied for launch.

  Launch costs are high, with a typical price for a launch costing around £100 million. Even so, the customer still only pays as little as 1/3rd of the total cost, since the vehicle development and much of the launch range maintenance is either entirely or partly paid for by governments. Unless an organisation has a block booking on launchers, a replacement launch will take 18 to 36 months.

  Faced with these two undesirable launcher characteristics a spacecraft failure early in its life must be avoided and the cost of building in reliability pushes the spacecraft cost up to, or even higher than, the cost of the launch itself. Thus the cost of space services, and the notoriously high cost of space activity, is directly a function of the cost of the launcher.

  Operations in Antarctica are a fraction of the cost of those in space. Yet Antarctica is further away, energetically equivalent to reach, and a dreadful environment by comparison with space. Space has no intrinsic feature that makes it expensive, given the correct technology for accessing it. The exploration of Antarctica is a non-contentious activity for only one reason—transport to Antarctica is cheap.

  Innovative replacements for expendable rockets have been under investigation in the UK for many decades. A major step forward occurred with the HOTOL study of the 1980s, which did have modest Government support. Since then a great deal of work has been carried out researching the crucial technologies to realise engines of the type that were to power HOTOL. This has culminated in the SKYLON vehicle, which incorporates many advances and improvements.

  A reusable launcher based on this propulsion technology now unique to the UK could reduce the cost of access to low Earth orbit by a factor of 50.  This would not only reduce the cost of space services, but also bring about an entire `sea change' in the role of space and the way that space activity is carried out.

  A reusable launch vehicle designed with this technology could be deployed in the same manner as aircraft, fully recovering its development cost and covering its flight operations through the ticket price. Vehicles could be in the hands of competing commercial operators bringing about benefits to the customer. Lead times for a launch could be days (or less!), rather than years, as is the case with aircraft.

  At the present time expendable launchers represent lucrative business to those companies who build them and they have a strong motive not to change it. The customer has little control over what is provided. If access to space is to become cheap and on-demand, then the technology will have to come from a sector without this vested interest. The UK is ideally placed to fulfil this role.

  The development cost of a reusable launcher will not be low. However, if done in collaboration with Europe over a decade, the costs will not be unreasonable for the development of a radically new space launch capability. If effort is made to sell vehicles to operators and recover the development cost over some reasonable time period the burden to the taxpayer will be nil. This has often been done before, with Airbus as a current example.


  UK manufacturing industry is in a parlous state, facing year-on-year decline in capability and quality. In a modern global economy this may be regarded by some as an acceptable situation, yet the lessons of history suggest that it would be folly not to retain some indigenous engineering capability.

  If it is considered desirable to have at least a contracted engineering industry, it must be very skilled, innovative and in command of the forefront manufacturing techniques if it is to continue to serve national interests. There are residual pockets of great expertise in the UK today, but these will not survive much longer without demanding challenges. Even now the large aerospace companies are outsourcing a growing fraction of their design and manufacture to the low pay economy countries.

  Each year the UK trains a substantial number of scientists and engineers in its universities, the majority of whom end up in the services sector and not contributing the knowledge they have gained to their field of first choice. This process converts a young, creative and motivated pool of potential drivers of the economy into people who are simply `doing a job'. Recent years have seen a sharp decline in people embarking on scientific degrees because they are widely perceived to have no future in the UK.

  The UK has a very good past record for innovation in technology. However, innovation usually comes through `hands-on' activities and seldom through academic reasoning alone. When innovation does arise through purely theoretical processes it still needs to be turned into hard reality through the application of engineering. While there are always examples of missed inventions within the realm of normal engineering, the exciting new and important discoveries usually lie at the cutting edge of technology. Without a capable engineering infrastructure these innovative prospects will be denied to the UK.

  Reusable launcher technology is a demanding activity which even within the research and development already performed at REL has forced the advancement of manufacturing techniques, for instance in drilling small accurate holes and the drawing of small diameter tubing. The capability created by the latter has already helped in one special medical operation requiring penetration of an ultra-fine catheter into an eyeball.

  The technology for a reusable launcher will undoubtedly lead to spin-off into other transportation areas, such as civil aviation. However, predicting spin-off is not a profitable pastime because, as the name implies, it happens as a by-product of an activity that was not obvious in its own right in the first instance. The main spin-off by far of engaging in reusable launcher development will be a more capable engineering industry than currently exists in the UK.


  Space is undoubtedly a motivating subject, and many people in advanced technologies not related to space initially found inspiration for the sciences, while they were young, through this subject.

  As a nation the UK is lacking in large-scale projects which fire the imagination, and has become an outsider at international discussions on the next generation of technological progress in almost any field. The Reaction Engines' SKYLON project attracts enormous interest and respect internationally and helps considerably to maintain a progressive image of the British Nation.

  There is often expressed a view that `prestige projects' are somehow undesirable and their cost is frequently questioned simply because they carry the prestige epithet. This may in some instances be true, but such projects are a statement of national capability, clear for all to see, manifest in real results. A single worthwhile visible project, selling Britain on its advanced capabilities, is worth any amount of trade missions and political superlatives.


  Reaction Engines has over a long period (more than two decades) brought to the fore propulsion technology unique in the world, capable of replacing expendable launch vehicles and reducing the cost of access to space by over an order of magnitude. At the same time the flexibility of such a vehicle to `go-on-demand' to virtually any low Earth orbit will change the complexion of space activity. This will manifest itself in not only a cheaper launch, but also in cheaper equipment to be launched through reduction of the demands on reliability.

  There has been a welcome increase in interest by the BNSC in the work at Reaction Engines, but it remains more highly recognised abroad, in ESA for example, than in the UK. This is incongruous, considering the high level of expenditure in the UK on space services and space science.

  If this important development is to benefit the UK it must be assessed soon. It is submitted that the best way to do this is to create a reviewing expert body to assess the benefits, independent of Government bias, provided that this is done with the utmost urgency.

October 2006

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