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
The result will be airline travel to orbit,
which will make very large scientific instruments and space probes
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
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 spaceplaneSpaceShipOnereached
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), , 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
programmesix 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 notthe 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
. 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 . 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 . 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 .
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
. Spaceflight Revolution by David
Ashford, Imperial College Press, 2002.
. 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.
. 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.
. Smart Project Ascender Feasibility
Study Final Report, Bristol Spaceplanes Limited Report TR
15, June 2004.
. 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.)