Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 109

Supplementary submission from Space Future Consulting Ltd


  1.  Sub-orbital passenger space flights could have started in Britain during the 1960s, using a passenger spaceplane derived from the Saunders Roe SR-53 supersonic rocket-plane, which first flew in May 1957.

  2.  Fifty years of progress in many fields of science and technology since 1957 have made the development of a sub-orbital passenger spaceplane much easier today than it would have been at that time.

  3.  In order to reach 100 kilometres altitude a spaceplane needs to accelerate to above Mach 3 (to approximately 1 km/second). This is higher than the SR-53's maximum speed of Mach 2, but very much less than the speed of 8 km/second (approximately Mach 26) needed to reach orbit. Thus, while flights to orbit will require several tons of propellants/passenger, a sub-orbital flight requires only tens of kg of propellants/ passenger.

  4.  In addition to much lower propellant costs than orbital flights, suborbital flights also have much gentler re-entry: frictional heating is far less than in re-entry from orbit, so there is no risk of vehicle damage, and no need for repairs after each flight.

  5.  Due to these technical factors, sub-orbital spaceplanes can readily achieve "airline operation" of several flights/day like jet-powered aircraft, thereby reducing vehicle costs/flight proportionately.

  6.  When mature, that is after achieving a long life for the rocket engine through several years of flight operations, the cost/flight will fall to a few times propellant costs, like aircraft—or approximately £3,000/ passenger.

  7.  A necessary condition for achieving costs as low as £3,000/passenger is that market demand must grow sufficiently large—to approximately one million passengers/year. Market research performed to date has not included direct surveys of demand at such low prices; however the demand for high-priced services suggests that world-wide demand will grow to several million passengers/year as service prices fall progressively. (NB several million passengers/day fly on jet aircraft.)

  8.  Most of the costs of the maturation process could be covered by revenues from commercial operations, including flights for researchers, space flight training, urgent photography and other uses, as well as tourism at higher prices.

  9.  The development of sub-orbital space flight services is the best way to make progress towards low-cost orbital flight (see 4.1 below). Once orbital spaceplanes are mature, the cost of return flights to orbit could fall to approximately £10,000/passenger, after about 10 years of operations.

  10.  The development of a sub-orbital spaceplane soon is a uniquely low-cost way for Britain to take a leading role in the coming European spaceplane industry, which has exceptional growth prospects for decades to come. By contrast to France, Germany and Italy, Britain does not have a vested interest in expendable rockets; this should make it easier for Britain to innovate in this field, as noted by the Trade & Industry Select Committee in 2000 [1]. However, a Minister capable of innovation is also needed to make appropriate policy decisions.

  11.  Starting spaceplane manufacture and operation in Britain will open a new industrial era, involving the low-cost operation of space vehicles like airliners. Aerospace manufacturing in Britain is currently in a very precarious condition—as shown by recent lay-offs at Airbus factories. Consequently a new spaceplane project is extremely desirable, and could grow to have highly beneficial effects on sub-contractors, materials suppliers, related service industries (including insurance and finance), education, higher education and other fields.

  12.  The environmental impact of even hundreds of sub-orbital space flights/day will be very small compared to either aviation or motor vehicles. This is because the total volume of propellants will be small; it will comprise largely non-hydrocarbon fuel, so will release little CO2 into the atmosphere; and it could be made carbon-neutral if required, for example by using CO2-free electricity to produce liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

  13.  Low-cost travel to orbit will use much more propellants, but will enable a wide range of new space activities that have been prevented by space agencies' continuing use of high-cost expendable rockets for 50 years. Among others, development of space-based solar power stations may be able to supply electric power to Earth without CO2 emissions.

  14.  Investment in passenger space travel promises a much higher economic return than other projects of the BNSC or space agencies. In particular it offers much better value than traditional "manned space flight" activities using expendable launch vehicles, which have extremely high costs and little economic value.

For example, the use of even £3 billion over 20 years recommended by the Royal Astronomical Society [2] would pay for only a small number of flights by British astronauts in the USA. Alternatively, the same investment could pay for a fleet of tens of "Ascender" sub-orbital passenger spaceplanes which could earn revenues of more than £1 billion/year—as well as paying for a prototype of the "Spacecab" orbital spaceplane.

  15.  The opportunity described here is not "too good to be true"; it is an unusually attractive investment opportunity resulting from a long overdue innovation having been resisted for several decades. This has created a chance for rapid progress to catch up with possibilities that have existed for decades.

  16.  The Minister for Science and Innovation until October 2006 refused to even discuss the subject of passenger space travel for the eight years of his tenure, wasting a golden opportunity for this country. It is greatly to be hoped that the new Minister will have the courage and the vision to embrace this opportunity for Britain, before it disappears as other countries overtake Britain's remaining intellectual lead.

1.  Technical Feasibility of Low-Cost Sub-Orbital Space Flights

  1.1  The Saunders Roe SR-53 supersonic rocket-plane (now in the RAF Museum at Cosford) first flew in May 1957; it flew supersonically in May 1958 [3]. A more advanced version, the SR-71, was proposed as a sub-orbital research vehicle, but was not built. If that project had continued, sub-orbital space flights could have become routine, and commercial passenger flights could have started in Britain during the early 1960s. Such a project is therefore very straight-forward today.

  1.2  The very low cost of such a project was demonstrated in 2004 by the winning of the "Ansari X-Prize" by the American spaceplane "SpaceShipOne", which cost some $25 million (ie about one month of HMG expenditure on civilian space activities). This effectively proved the correctness of the long-standing claim by Bristol Spaceplanes Ltd that a sub-orbital spaceplane could be developed at very low cost. This possibility was described in a study for ESA in 1994 [4]. The feasibility of Bristol Spaceplanes' project was even endorsed by the Minister for Space, Ian Taylor MP in 1995, based on a review by BNSC staff [5]—more than five years before the SpaceShipOne project began, and before the "Ansari X-Prize" was even established.

  1.3  The £50 million cost of a prototype of the "Ascender" sub-orbital spaceplane, which is designed for low-cost commercial operation (rather than to win the "Ansari X-Prize"), requires funding equivalent to about 10% of the BNSC's budget over several years. It is about 2% of the BNSC's expenditure since 1990 when support for the Ascender project was first requested (and first refused).

  1.4  The fact that SpaceShipOne flew supersonically on its first powered flight further demonstrates how much easier such a development is today compared to the first supersonic flight in 1947 by the X-1 rocket-plane (which took years of preparations). NB the single-stage SR-53 flew supersonically within 11 years of the X-1, with no need for a separate carrier-plane like the X-1 and SpaceShipOne.

  1.5  Since a vehicle's kinetic energy is proportional to the square of its speed, the propellants needed for sub-orbital flights are only about 1% of those needed to reach orbital speed, making flight operations very low-cost. (That is, 1/8 x 1/8 = 1/64, and there is an additional exponential benefit from needing much less propellant to carry the lower mass of propellants.)

  1.6  This benefit is repeated on re-entry when a vehicle's kinetic energy is converted into heat through friction with the atmosphere. The heat generated on re-entry from a sub-orbital flight to 100 km altitude is approximately 1/64 of that generated by a similar vehicle braking from orbital speed of 8 km/second. Thus only quite simple heat shielding is required, and there is no need for maintenance or repairs, or even detailed checks, between flights.

  1.7  In order to achieve the minimum possible cost/flight, in addition to an appropriate vehicle design, there is also a need for a large market to achieve economies of scale.

2.  Probability of Market Growing Sufficiently to Achieve Economies of Scale

  2.1   Surprisingly little market research on space travel has been performed during the 40-year period during which sub-orbital passenger flights have been possible. The first ever market research on orbital passenger flight was performed by the author in Japan in 1993 [6]. There has still not been a professional study of the potential market for passenger space flights (either orbital or sub-orbital) in Britain; nor has there been a study anywhere of potential demand for sub-orbital flights at the low prices achievable by a vehicle such as Bristol Spaceplanes' Ascender.

  2.2  However, in 2002 a Nasa-funded study of the potential market for reusable launch vehicles included market research on the demand for high-priced sub-orbital and orbital passenger flights [7]. That study concluded that demand in the USA for sub-orbital flights alone might grow as high as $4 billion/year, even at prices of $100,000/ passenger. NB this is several times the demand for commercial satellite launches, an activity which has received subsidies of tens of $billions.

  2.3  During the Select Committee's oral evidence session on 21 February, Committee Members expressed interest in making a trip to space themselves, and it was even proposed that they might make a formal "Visit" to space on an appropriate occasion [8]. This is surely representative of public opinion about space travel: it is recognised as a truly unique experience which everyone who has been to space confirms was one of the most interesting experiences of their life. That is, riding on a rocket, seeing planet Earth floating against the blackness of space, and floating weightlessly are, by all accounts, uniquely exciting and thought-provoking, inspiring a wide range of emotions. Although a light-hearted moment in the Committee's proceedings, this was not trivial: the existence of spontaneous popular demand for such a new service is the foundation of a new industry.

  2.4  At the time of writing in early 2007, unusually high levels of unemployment are a major problem world-wide, and are due in particular to a lack of new industries in the richer countries. These are needed to offset the rapid loss of jobs due to business rationalisation on a global scale, including the "offshoring" of many jobs from more developed countries to countries with lower wage levels. To have delayed exploiting the opportunity to create a major new space travel industry for 40 years has been a major failure both of space policy and of economic policy.

  2.5  Despite the lack of detailed market research concerning low-priced sub-orbital flights, their known popularity at high prices, the growing number of countries planning spaceports for sub-orbital space flight services (already including USA (six states), Singapore, United Arab Emirates and Sweden), and the fact that several million passengers fly on airliners every day, all suggest strongly that demand will grow to a high level at £3,000/passenger—perhaps several million passengers/year worldwide.

  2.6  In Japan there has even been discussion of the possibility of sub-orbital spaceflights becoming a part of secondary education—whether subsidised or at parents' cost. Such a policy alone could create demand for about one million passengers/year in a single country. (If provided by the Japanese government, implementing such a policy would cost more than £1 billion/year; but if substituted for part of the £30 billion/year currently spent on largely unprofitable public works projects, it would contribute much more to economic growth, and have important educational benefits in stimulating interest in science, technology and other subjects.)

  2.7  As recognised spontaneously by Committee Members, the possibility of traveling to space for oneself is far more stimulating than the prospect of watching a video of someone else in space, or than designing part of a satellite. It is very desirable that Britain should adopt this innovative, low-cost approach to space development (which British researchers have been leading for the past 20 years) rather than blindly continuing existing activities of which the educational and economic benefits are very limited, and much less than could easily be achieved with the proposed innovation.

3.  Time Required to Achieve Cost of £3,000/Passenger

  3.1  The date when a cost of £3,000/passenger is reached depends on the date of starting development of a prototype of a vehicle designed to achieve minimal overall costs. The following are approximate dates for Bristol Spaceplanes' Ascender, which is such a vehicle:

  Time of development through first flight of prototype: three years (comparable to SR-57, SpaceShipOne).

  Duration of Test Flights to certification for passenger carrying: two years.

  Production of commercial version: one year.

  Operations to achieve maturity: four years.

  Hence, in total, approximately 10 years is needed from the start of funding of a suitable prototype to achieving a cost of £3,000/passenger.

  3.2  The main technical issue is the development of a long-life version of a suitable rocket engine—of the order of 1,000 flights. Such a development is essentially a straight-forward, incremental engineering project, similar to that carried out during flight operations of the first generation of jet engines. Small reusable rocket engines were developed for rocket-assisted take-off aircraft during the 1950s and 1960s, when they reached 50 flights between overhauls. Raising the life to 1,000 flights will take a few years, depending on the rate of growth of activities and the budget available.

  3.3  The credibility of this estimate of course depends on the soundness of the Ascender plan. In addition to the extensive experience of the principal members of the Bristol Spaceplanes team, the technical feasibility of Ascender and its orbital follow-on, "Spacecab", was endorsed by the Minister for Space in 1995, based on a review by BNSC staff [5].

  3.4  However, the Minister for Science and Innovation since 1998, Lord Sainsbury, permitted almost no expenditure on this project from 1998 through 2006, though with no analysis being performed to justify this stance—and despite strongly worded criticism of this policy by the Trade and Industry Committee in 2000 [1].

  3.5  Moreover, under Lord Sainsbury's policy the BNSC continued to advise the DTI every year not to grant Bristol Spaceplanes Ltd any seedcorn investment—except for a SMART award in 2004, after SpaceShipOne had proved that Bristol Spaceplanes' claims were true. He subsequently permitted no follow-up to that study through 2006. If instead the Minister had approved this innovation, the cost of sub-orbital flights could already be close to £3,000/passenger, with numerous resulting benefits, and the development of a low-cost orbital vehicle could already have begun.

  3.6  Fortunately for British manufacturing industry, the design approach of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo is not suitable for achieving minimum flight costs, nor for development into an orbital vehicle—which are the activities with greatest potential for growth, and therefore of greatest interest for UK manufacturing industry. These objectives are also more appropriate for a public project than a vehicle with much higher operating costs, which would not be available to most of the public.

  3.7  It will be greatly in the interest of Britain's aerospace manufacturing industry if the Minister for Science and Innovation appointed in 2006, Malcolm Wicks MP, will correct his predecessor Lord Sainsbury's policy of preventing work on this subject, and authorise funding for a sub-orbital spaceplane prototype. Despite its low cost, this could become the basis of a major new direction for long-term growth of aerospace and other industries.

4.  Contribution to Achieving Low-Cost Orbital Flight and Benefits

  4.1  The development of sub-orbital space flight services is the best way to make progress towards achieving similar cost reductions in travel to and from orbit. That is, future low-cost orbital passenger flight services will be more like sub-orbital passenger flight services than like the use of expendable rockets to launch satellites today. This was stated in a 2002 report of the US Department of Commerce:

    "Understanding the full significance of sub-orbital RLV (reusable launch vehicle) development requires recognition not only of what sub-orbital RLVs may accomplish in their own right, but also of their significance as a transitional step towards orbital RLV development... an operational sub-orbital RLV... will provide a technology "stepping-stone" towards orbital RLV development .... and will pave the roadway for appropriate RLV regulatory, insurance and financial policies and strategies" [9].

  4.2  The value of a sub-orbital spaceplane for developing orbital spaceplanes has also been explained repeatedly by Ashford over the past 20 years, as summarised in [10]. Following the same logic as used above, the cost of a return flight to orbit using a two-stage passenger-carrying spaceplane such as Bristol Spaceplanes' "Spacebus" could fall as low as £10,000 passenger after maturation through several years of flight operations [10]. This project would be more technically challenging than a sub-orbital vehicle, and test-flying would be more expensive due to the much larger quantities of propellants used. However, progress in many areas of engineering makes it feasible today; for example, the use of titanium, in which British engineers have a world lead, has become far cheaper today. To reach maturity is expected to take about 15 years from start of funding [10].

  4.3  The initial investment in a prototype orbital passenger vehicle would be of the order of £1 billion (depending on its size, among other factors). When sub-orbital passenger flights have been operating on a commercial basis for a few years, investing in the development of an orbital vehicle system will be easier than it is today. That is, the precedent will be valuable in reducing both the actual risks and the perceived risks for investors. Such a project might well become a pan-European project like Airbus; British industry is ideally positioned to lead this development by pioneering sub-orbital spaceplane operations.

  4.4  The author has been advocating such a policy with Ashford for the past 20 years [11]. Unfortunately the practice of space agencies using expendable rockets at very high cost is given much more attention by policy-makers and the media, who seem to assume that space agencies are employing the most economical methods possible. Policy makers and the media also do not seem to appreciate how extraordinary it is that the cost of space travel has not fallen at all over 50 years, despite revolutionary advances in many fields of science and technology, as discussed in Space Future Consulting's earlier Submissions to the Select Committee [12, 13].

  4.5  Overall, the potential to achieve economies of scale which passenger traffic offers for sub-orbital space flights, due to popularity with the general public, seems certain to apply also to orbital travel. The higher costs of both developing and operating orbital vehicles will be offset by the much higher revenues from orbital flight services. That is, market research shows clearly that flights to orbit, which will naturally include stays in orbital accommodation lasting several days or longer, will be much more popular than sub-orbital fights of just a few minutes (6, 7). In addition, there will be demand for orbital flights for many other purposes than tourism.

5.  Benefits for British and European Industry

  5.1  It is an entirely realistic ambition for Britain to become the home within Europe of a "Spacebus" industry that could eventually rival Airbus in importance. Moreover, the initial cost is extremely low, equal to some 10% of HMG spending on existing civilian space activities, none of which offers the prospect of generating a large new commercial market, as noted by the Trade and Industry Committee in 2000 [1].

  5.2  A prototype sub-orbital spaceplane is also a very useful vehicle in its own right (as illustrated by the fact that Nasa has apparently already agreed to use the American sub-orbital vehicle "SpaceShipTwo" when it is developed). Manufacturing and operating a sub-orbital spaceplane is also the best way to start developing an orbital vehicle system, both from the point-of-view of cost-effectiveness (as emphasised by the US Department of Commerce [9]), from the educational point-of-view, and due to the potential for public support, especially among the young.

  5.3   On the other hand, funding of a sub-orbital spaceplane prototype would not pre-empt subsequent decisions about how much to invest in follow-on vehicles, whether a commercial sub-orbital passenger vehicle, a prototype orbital spaceplane, a commercial orbital passenger vehicle, or others. Each of these decisions could be made at appropriate later dates, and each project is likely to involve participation by a range of public and private investors from other European countries.

  5.4  The timing of a decision in 2007 to invest in developing the Ascender prototype would be very appropriate from the point-of-view of British manufacturing industry. The recently announced layoff of 1,600 staff in Airbus factories in Bristol and Flintshire, accompanied by public discussion of the company's intention to outsource manufacturing work to lower-cost countries, is an ominous warning of the weakness of aerospace companies depending on Airbus alone. With corporate headquarters in France and Germany, it is unavoidable that strategic decision-making will favour preserving work in those countries. Consequently a seminal new aerospace project is urgently needed in Britain to avoid further de-industrialisation, with its well-understood ill-effects on other industries, on technical education, on employment and on the economy as a whole.

  5.5  Economic policy makers are used to ignoring the space industry as no more than a small, loss-making activity. It is important that they are taught about the strategic economic importance of this major new industrial opportunity, in a field of traditional British strength, before it is lost to foreign competition.

  5.6  In this context the decades-overdue development of spaceplanes can become not just a lifeline for British manufacturing industry, but can create a major new industry with potential for large-scale demand growth, popular with the general public, having major educational benefits, and aiding space science research by sharply reducing the cost of access to space. Europe's role in space can thereby also become more independent of the unreliable, high-cost US space shuttle (and its planned successor), creating an exciting new vision for young Europeans, and a new field in which to preserve Europe's overall competitiveness with China and India.

6.  Environmental Impact of Large-Scale Passenger Space Travel Industry

  6.1  Since the subject of the environmental impact of space tourism was discussed during the oral evidence session on 21 February, some comments are added here. Most importantly, the emissions from even several hundred sub-orbital space flights/day will be very small compared to the emissions from either aviation or motor vehicles, mainly because the rocket engines are used for only about one minute during each flight. Thus the total volume of propellants used is small; moreover, non-hydrocarbon fuels can be used, which produce no CO2 on combustion. In addition, if CO2-free electricity is used to produce the propellants (such as liquid hydrogen and oxygen) the flights could be made carbon-neutral.

  6.2  The emissions/passenger from orbital flights will be about 100 times those for sub-orbital flights. These could also be made CO2-free, and even carbon-neutral, in the same way as sub-orbital flights. However, this will not eliminate all their environmental impacts, which will grow with the scale of the industry: for example, the emission of hot steam into various levels of the atmosphere may have some adverse impacts above a certain quantity. However, reducing the cost of travel to orbit will reduce the cost of all space activities, including environmental research and development of non-chemical launch methods such as "space tethers", enabling even orbital flights to be environmentally benign.

  6.3  Moreover, the first large-scale use of space that is widely advocated once low-cost space travel is achieved, is to supply low-CO2 electricity on a large scale from solar power satellites, using only passive energy-receiving antennas on the Earth [14]. Despite having been the subject of research for 40 years this idea has not yet been tested by space agencies, for reasons that remain unclear. Consequently, not only is there a realistic prospect of making orbital space travel environmentally neutral, the sharp reduction in the cost of space activities that only passenger space travel can achieve has the potential to enable radical reduction in CO2 emissions worldwide.

  6.4  In a broader perspective, government efforts worldwide to stimulate continuing economic growth through manufacture and distribution of goods increasingly have negative environmental impacts, as humans' industrial activities approach the limits of the Earth's ecological system. In this context, it would be highly beneficial for industrial activities to be progressively shifted out of the Earth's ecosphere. Far from being "science fiction", this possibility is 40 years overdue, due to space agencies' failure to develop low-cost space travel when it became feasible during the 1960s. Once this starts it should be possible to rapidly catch up in a wide range of new space activities that were possible in principle decades ago, but have been prevented to date by space agencies' continued use of high-cost expendable launch vehicles for 50 years. This process will create many opportunities for innovation and further economic growth largely outside the Earth's increasingly threatened ecosphere [15].

7.  Benefit-to-Cost Ratio Far Greater than Space Agencies' Activities Using Expendable Launch Vehicles

  7.1  Development of low-cost passenger space travel promises a much higher economic return than any other project of the BNSC or space agencies. In particular it offers much greater value—economic, educational, cultural—than traditional "manned space flight" activities using expendable launch vehicles, which have extremely high costs and little economic value. As discussed on 21 February, the use of even £3 billion over 20 years to participate in "manned space flight" activities of NASA and Esa, as recommended by the Royal Astronomical Society [2], would pay, at most, for a small number of flights by British astronauts on the successor to NASA's "space shuttle". Alternatively, the same investment could pay for the production of a fleet of tens of "Ascender" sub-orbital passenger spaceplanes which could earn sales revenues of more than £1 billion/year—and in addition pay for a prototype of the "Spacecab" orbital passenger spaceplane. The latter would clearly be far more beneficial in every way—economically, industrially, educationally, culturally and politically.

  7.2  Passenger space travel also offers much greater economic value than the BNSC's efforts at commercialisation. The 2000 report of the Trade & Industry Select Committee bluntly criticised the policy of investing heavily in supposedly commercial surveillance satellites as having "failed" [1]. Unfortunately that criticism was not effective in improving policy: the then Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury, continued the same policy without any significant improvement in performance until he resigned in 2006. On the contrary, he commissioned several reports which ignored the Trade & Industry Committee's recommendation to investigate space travel; the BNSC's Submission to the Select Committee did not even mention the subject, but gives an excessively rosy picture of his space policy by evaluating it in terms quite different from those used in business such as payback time, profitability, return on investment; and he watered-down the BNSC's objectives to reduce the importance of achieving economic benefit from space investment—as discussed in Annex 2 of Space Future Consulting's earlier Submission [12].

  7.3  While it is understandable that the ex-Minister and the BNSC wish to emphasise the positive results of their work, the Committee should not allow themselves to be misled into believing that British space policy is economically successful in the normal sense of these words. The expenditure of more than £1 billion for which Lord Sainsbury was responsible during his tenure achieved no more than a small fraction of the benefits readily attainable. The reason for this is that he did not permit any significant expenditure on the key problem of space policy—reducing the extremely high cost of space travel—despite the fact that it is a straight-forward, low-cost project, as described above and in [10], and as proved by SpaceShipOne in 2004.

  7.4  The educational benefits of developing space travel will also be much greater than the BNSC's satellite-centred policy. Most children are indeed interested in space; however, like the Select Committee Members, they are much more interested in the possibility of traveling to space themselves than in either watching videos of other people traveling to space, or in studying highly technical subjects like satellite design. The latter is valuable training for those who pursue a technical career; however, it is not effective in attracting most children to study science and technology—as can clearly be seen from drastically falling enrolments in physics courses, as discussed in [12, 13]. The modest cost of making low-cost sub-orbital travel a realistic possibility for young people would probably be more than repaid by the educational benefits alone.

  7.5  Development of passenger space travel will also create many employment opportunities in the field of space medicine. The Select Committee received many interesting Submissions from dedicated members of the fledgling space medicine community in Britain, requesting funding to support their work [16]. These were rather countered by the discussion on 21 February, when it was stated that, despite practitioners' enthusiasm, space medicine offers no pressing advantage for medical research; it is extremely expensive to participate in Nasa's "manned space flight" programme; and there are no particularly promising commercial applications [8]. In this context, supporting the growth of a passenger space travel industry offers an ideal "Win-Win" solution, since it will create a self-financing activity that will inevitably require extensive space-medical advice and research over a wide range of issues for several decades to come. In order to make progress in this, the space medicine community should be funded to support the space travel industry rather than "manned space flight", in activities including passenger screening, advice, counter-measures, international standards, related research, and other matters. It is desirable that this activity should be modeled on civil aviation medical services, which handle the full range of health, safety and medical insurance issues on a large-scale, international, commercial basis, and are already starting to do this work for space travel through the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

8.  Concluding Remarks:  The Central Issue for Space Policy

  8.1  In summary, the process needed to achieve the target cost of £3,000/passenger for sub-orbital flights is a straight-forward vehicle project following a typical aviation business model:

    —  production of a prototype of the Ascender sub-orbital spaceplane (already designed);

    —  test-flights to achieve certification for passenger-carrying (as it is designed for);

    —  final design of production version; and

    —  regular flight operations for several years.

  This process will lead to maturation of the vehicle and related operations, similar to the maturation of a new aircraft, after which the typical cost per flight is a low multiple of the cost of the propellants used, as described in [10].

  8.2  The total cost of this process would be a few hundred £million over 10 years, much of which would be covered by revenues from flights at higher prices than £3,000/passenger, for which there is known to be strong demand.

  8.3  The total cost to the government of such a project will depend on how large a role the government wishes British companies to play in this new industry, and what other national benefits it wishes to obtain from the project. Economically it would be most effective to pay for at least the prototype and early test flight operations, for which the funding needed is 10% of HMG's expenditure on civilian space activities, continued over a few years. This would avoid further years of delay; would obtain major nationwide educational benefits; and would ensure the possibility of a leading role in future growth of the European spaceplane industry for British companies.

  8.4  Institutionally it will be most effective if such a project is implemented via civil aviation institutions; this will make use of the CAA's long and deep experience, including the unique, pioneering process of having certified the supersonic Concorde airliner for passenger carrying.

  8.5  An important risk-reducing factor is that funding the development of a suitable prototype spaceplane in the near future, even if not followed up by investment in further project phases, would in itself have a wide range of benefits for space science research, for education, for aerospace manufacturing, and for space medicine, while also creating the opportunity to take a leading role in the European spaceplane industry.

  8.6  As progress towards reusable spaceplanes is being made both in continental Europe and in other countries, continued delay is becoming increasingly dangerous for the British economy. Within a few years at most, China and India are likely to enter the space travel industry, after which the potential role of British (and European) manufacturing industry will be greatly reduced, and the opportunity to take the lead will have been lost—with all the implications that has for employment, related services, regulation, standardisation and other matters.

  8.7  The opportunities described above and in previous Submissions are not "too good to be true", although uninformed readers may be tempted to think so. Due to decades of stagnation in space transportation, the benefit-to-cost ratio of investing in a sub-orbital spaceplane prototype is exceptionally positive. Recent events have reduced the risks even further—notably the successful flights of SpaceShipOne, and follow-on activities worldwide as more and more governments wake up to the potential. SpaceShipOne demonstrated that the founders of Bristol Spaceplanes Ltd and Space Future Consulting Ltd have been right for 20 years. The feasibility of plans for the Ascender and Spacecab vehicles was endorsed by BNSC staff in 1995 [5]. Nothing more remains to be done in order to create a major new opportunity for Britain's aerospace industry than to provide the small budget needed to implement this plan.

  8.8  The ex-Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury, frequently spoke of the importance of innovation, but he himself prevented it in this field for the full eight years of his tenure, without ever giving any justification. The space industry is stagnating economically due to the central problem of excessively high launch costs: this long-standing situation has persisted precisely because space policy makers refuse to consider developing low-cost spaceplanes—for reasons which they have never explained. For example, the BNSC's Submission to the Select Committee does not even mention passenger space travel, which is the key to reducing the extremely high cost of all space activities.

  8.9  This persistent behaviour raises the question: "Why?" Why did Lord Sainsbury decide to pursue this economically unsatisfactory policy, specifically refusing to consider sub-orbital spaceplanes and/or passenger travel—contrary to the assessment of BNSC staff in 1995, contrary to the Select Committee's criticism in 2000, contrary to the rapid progress made since then in other countries, and contrary to the enormous potential benefits for Britain described above? From the above discussion it seems clear that the reason was none of the following:

  It was not because a sub-orbital spaceplane project is too costly.

  It was not because a sub-orbital spaceplane would not be useful for research.

  It was not because it does not offer sufficient economic benefits.

  It was not because the risks are too high.

  It was not because existing space activities are sufficiently profitable.

  It was not because existing space activities have sufficient educational benefits.

  It was not because the aerospace industry has no need for such a seminal new project.

  8.10  To maintain silence while refusing to act on this central issue of space policy for eight years, even in the face of explicit criticism, is surely the exact opposite of what should be expected of a "Minister for Innovation". To the contrary, a minister with specific responsibility for innovation should at the very least perform a comprehensive review of the potential of such a major innovation, which by 2006 was widely recognised as the most promising field for growth of commercial space activities, and which has been advocated for more than 20 years by the British researchers leading this field.

  8.11  Consequently, Lord Sainsbury's inaction and silence on this most important issue amount to a complete failure to discharge the important responsibility for which he was appointed. It would therefore be greatly in the public interest for him to be required, as the ex-Minister responsible, to explain to the Select Committee his reasons for having persisted in this policy which is so contrary to the interests of British taxpayers.

  8.12  It is a vital role of the Select Committee to take a broader view than that of each of the different organisations participating in government-funded space activities. It is clear that the BNSC's continuing refusal even to acknowledge the importance of passenger space travel, and a fortiori to invest in realising it, has been a key failing of British space policy throughout the previous Minister's tenure. It will be of the greatest service to the British people if the Select Committee investigates this deep-rooted problem, and strongly recommends action to redress it. As explained above, this will, at low cost, make a unique contribution:

    —  to reducing the costs of all space activities,

    —  to renewal of Britain's aerospace manufacturing industry,

    —  to reviving young peoples' interest in science and engineering education,

    —  to the creation of a true space medicine profession, and

    —  to the start of a popular new travel service with limitless growth prospects.

  8.13  It is highly desirable that the new Minister, Malcolm Wicks MP, should not merely continue to give lip-service to the idea of innovation, but should take the initiative to allocate the very modest budget required to manufacture and test-fly the Ascender sub-orbital Spaceplane, and thereby obtain the wide-ranging benefits described above for British taxpayers. The arguments in favour of investing in this project are now overwhelming. To continue his predecessor's negative policy would be to throw away a uniquely valuable opportunity: it is extremely rare that such a widely beneficial outcome is available at such low cost and risk. A positive decision will earn the gratitude not only of the aerospace industry for opening the door to a new world of growth, but also of parents nationwide whose children will be inspired by the optimistic, open-ended future to which the development of low-cost space travel leads.

REFERENCES  1.  House of Commons, 2000, Trade and Industry Committee—Tenth Report,

  2.  F Close, J Dudeney & K Pounds, "The Scientific Case for Human Space Flight", Royal Astronomical Society Commission, RAS PN05/45, 2005.


  4.  D Ashford, 1994, "A Preliminary Feasibility Study of the Spacecab Low-Cost Spaceplane and of the Spacecab Demonstrator", European Space Agency Contract No. 10411/93/F/TB.

  5.  Ian Taylor MP, 1995, letter to Sir John Cope, MP, March.

  6.  P Collins, Y Iwasaki, H Kanayama and M Ohnuki, 1994, "Potential Demand for Passenger Travel to Orbit", Construction Engineering and Operations in Space IV, ASCE, Vol.1, pp 578-86.

  7.  NASA-MSFC, 2003, "Nasa ASCENT Study Final Report", Marshall Space Flight Center.

  8.  House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee, 2007, Oral Evidence Session transcript, February 21.

  9.  US Department of Commerce, 2002, "Suborbital Reusable Launch Vehicles and Applicable Markets", DoC Office of Space Commercialisation, October.

  10.  D Ashford, 2007, "New Commercial Opportunities in Space", The Aeronautical Journal, February.

  11.  P Collins & D Ashford, 1986, "Potential Economic Implications of the Development of Space Tourism", IAF paper no IAA-86-446; also at archive/potential_economic_implications_of_the_development_of_space_tourism.shtml

  12.  P Collins, October 2006, Submission to Select Committee on Science and Technology by Space Future Consulting, Memo Numbers SP 15 and SP 15A, also available at pp 68—84.

  13.  P Collins, February 2007, "Progress in the Development of Sub-Orbital Passenger Space Travel: October 2006—February 2007", Supplementary Submission to Select Committee on Science and Technology Inquiry on Space Policy by Space Future Consulting, Memo Number SP 15B.

  14.  M Nagatomo & P Collins, 1997, "A Common Cost Target of Space Transportation for Space Tourism and Space Energy Development", AAS paper no 97-460, AAS Vol 96, pp 617-630; also at _space_tourism_and _ space_energy_development.shtml

  15.  P Collins, 2006, "The Economic Benefits of Space Tourism", JBIS, Vol 59, pp 400-411.


May 2007

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