Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 12

Submission from Bristol Spaceplanes Limited



  The UK is in a good position to lead an imminent transformation of spaceflight, with potentially great economic and political benefits.

  Sub-orbital passenger flights are likely to start by around 2010. If these are successful, the natural follow-on development is a small orbital spaceplane (ie, an aeroplane capable of flying to and from orbit). This will be used for pioneering orbital space tourism. It will also greatly lower the cost of launching small satellites and supplying the International Space Station. With economies of scale and maturing technology, the cost per seat to orbit will eventually be reduced by a factor of 1,000 compared with the cost today. This is a measure of how much less aeroplanes cost to operate than ballistic missiles, developments of which have been used for all space flights to date.

  The result will be airline travel to orbit, which will make very large scientific instruments and space probes readily affordable.

  The key project for progress towards lower cost access to space is the small orbital spaceplane. Development costs can be surprisingly low and the UK has all the technology and intellectual property to take the lead.

  The main hurdle is that this opportunity is not yet sufficiently widely accepted to provide the basis for action.

  1.  In the 1950s, it was expected that spaceplanes (rocket-powered aeroplanes capable of flying to and from space) would be used to send the first people to orbit. In the event, pressures of the Cold War led to converted ballistic missiles being used instead. The habit has stuck, and expendable launchers based on ballistic missile technology have been used ever since. The early designs for the Space Shuttle were fully reusable, but a budget cut forced NASA to rethink. They had a choice between a smaller but fully reusable design (like the earlier European Aerospace Transporter projects) and maintaining the original size but giving up on full reusability. The politics of megaprojects overcame engineering and commercial common sense, and the resulting design was largely expendable. The Shuttle thereby became as expensive and risky to operate as the preceding manned spacecraft launched by expendable vehicle.

  2.  To those who were aware of the potential of spaceplanes to reduce greatly the cost of access to space, this was a major setback because it meant a long delay in the introduction of an aeroplane approach to space transportation. Since then, more people have come to share this view, and a private sector spaceplane movement has evolved. This movement soon recognised that space tourism was likely to become the largest market for spaceplanes. In 2004, the first privately funded spaceplane—SpaceShipOne—reached space height, and Virgin Galactic is now planning to operate passenger flights with a developed version. Several competing companies are close behind.

  3.  There will probably be sufficient passenger demand for some of these ventures to be successful, although start-up costs and times may be more than planned. These flights will be sub-orbital in that they will be fast enough to climb to space for a few minutes but not fast enough to stay up like a satellite. The natural follow-on development is an orbital spaceplane, which will require roughly twice the height, six times the speed, and ten times the development cost of a sub-orbital one, together with an additional five years for development.

  4.  These early orbital spaceplanes will have short lives and high maintenance costs by aeroplane standards. Nonetheless, they will be less expensive to operate than expendable launchers of comparable performance. A beneficial downward cost spiral will then start, with lower costs leading to higher traffic levels, which will provide the funding to improve the design, which will lead to even lower costs, and so on until the lower cost limit of vehicles with conventional materials and chemical rockets is reached.

  5.  Analysis by Bristol Spaceplanes Limited (BSP), [1], and others indicates that the cost per seat to orbit in a large mature spaceplane will then be a few tens of thousands of pounds and that more than one million people per year will visit space hotels. We further suggest that this could possibly be achieved within as little as 15 years, given a massive development programme—six years for a prototype small orbital spaceplane and about nine to enlarge and mature the design. The funding for such a rapid programme depends on a "gold-rush" effect with major players investing heavily to be first to market as soon as the potential for spaceplanes is more widely appreciated.

  6.  However long it takes, the result will be airline travel to orbit, leading to very large instruments and space probes becoming affordable, and hence to breakthroughs in space science and exploration. Space tourism is likely to become the largest business in space, possibly worth one trillion Euros over the next 25 years. Pilot schemes for solar power satellites will become affordable. If feasibility is demonstrated (which is by no means certain), such satellites could provide much of this planet's energy requirements without carbon dioxide emissions. (The energy reaching the Earth from the Sun in just three days is equal to that in all known fossil fuel reserves.)

  7.  Such low costs will alter the trade-off between human and robot towards where it is today for terrestrial activities. For example, some Antarctic observatories are manned, others not—the choice is based on cost and is not a big issue. When spaceplanes enter service, a similar situation will probably apply to space science and exploration.

  8.  The key project for triggering this progress towards low-cost access to space is a small orbital spaceplane. Development costs can be surprisingly low. In 1994, BSP completed a feasibility study funded by ESA of its Spacecab orbital spaceplane [2]. This showed that advanced technology was not required and that the development cost of operational prototypes was equivalent to about two Shuttle flights. An independent review, commissioned by the then Minister for Space, Ian Taylor, and managed by BNSC, broadly endorsed these conclusions [3]. A more recent study, partly funded by the DTI, showed that operational prototypes of the BSP Ascender sub-orbital spaceplane could be built for about 50 million pounds [4]. These prototypes would be used for early sub-orbital tourism and progressively developed towards design maturity, using the profits from these early operations to provide the funding.

  9.  Perhaps surprisingly, the UK is well placed to lead this process and become the centre for a large new European spaceplane industry, with big economic and political gains. We have the required technology, excellent design concepts, and are not committed to expensive manned space projects whose only justification has been prestige.

  10.  Of aeroplanes that have actually flown, and with the possible exception of SpaceShipOne, the one most suitable for providing the basis of a space tourism industry is the Saunders Roe SR.53 rocket fighter that first flew in 1957.

  11.  If it had entered service, the RAF would soon have had a practical and mature rocketplane with long life and rapid turnaround. With straightforward development, the SR.53 could have had sub-orbital performance. Indeed, when it was cancelled in 1958, Saunders Roe did propose a space research variant.

  12.  A commercial development could have been built to carry passengers on space experience flights, much as now planned by Virgin Galactic using the US SpaceShipTwo. Thus, routine sub-orbital flights could have been achieved by the late 1960s. With economies of scale and maturing technology, the cost per seat would eventually have approached that of a long-range business jet at just a few thousand pounds. Orbital spaceplanes could have followed a few years later, probably based on one of the 1960s European Aerospace Transporter projects [5].

  13.  If this had happened, spaceflight would have evolved naturally into an everyday and widely affordable business. That it did not provides a one-time opportunity for the UK to lead a spaceflight revolution.

  14.  These conclusions are not yet widely accepted but nonetheless follow from robust analysis based on applying to space transportation the methods used for the concept study of advanced aeroplanes. We would like the Committee to recommend that the prospect for low-cost spaceplane development be included in appropriate Government policies and mechanisms for support to industry.

October 2006


  [1].  Spaceflight Revolution by David Ashford, Imperial College Press, 2002.

  [2].  A Preliminary Feasibility Study of the Spacecab Low-Cost Spaceplane and of the Spacecab Demonstrator, Bristol Spaceplanes Limited Report TR 6, February 1994. Carried out under European Space Agency Contract No 10411/93/F/TB. Volume 1 reproduced as The Potential of Spaceplanes in the Journal of Practical Applications in Space, Spring 1995.

  [3].  Letter from Ian Taylor MBE MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology, to the Rt Hon Sir John Cope MP, March 1995.

  [4].  Smart Project Ascender Feasibility Study Final Report, Bristol Spaceplanes Limited Report TR 15, June 2004.

  [5].  Review of European Aerospace Transporter Studies, by H Tolle. Proceedings of SAE Space Technology Conference, Palo Alto, California, May 1967. (This paper describes designs by B.A.C., Bölkow, Bristol Siddeley, Dassault, ERNO, Hawker Siddeley, and Junkers.)

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