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
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
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 reasontransport
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
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
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.