Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520 - 522)



  Q520  Dr Turner: Coming to the environmental impact, and especially Will Whitehorn, given the way in which you have been singing the praises of the lack of environmental impact of your technology, I would like you all to give an environmental impact assessment of space tourism and put it into the context in comparison with the current environment impact of commercial aviation.

  Mr Whitehorn: I can do that very simply. If we look at a 10 year programme of Virgin Galactic flying people with 50,000 flights, for example, I would assess that our environmental impact would be less than two Shuttle launches. That puts it into some context for you. The environmental impact of the system has also to be looked at in the context of its ability to launch payload with far less environmental impact than ground-based rocketry. Ground-based rocketry will always be necessary but solid fuel rockets launched from the ground have a massive environmental impact which people have been prepared to pay the cost of over the last 40 or 50 years but I do not believe that society will in 20 or 30 years' time. Developing these new types of air launch systems with new technology material aircraft and new technology engines with new technology fuels is going to be very important. One of the things we are looking at for the SpaceShip Two project in its later phases is going to be the introduction of a new fuel which cannot be used in commercial aviation yet. Butenol is the name of the fuel. It is a different alcohol to ethanol but one that freezes at a much lower temperature, has a much more similar characteristic to Jet-A1 aviation spirit and can be produced from biomass. If we could develop that new fuel we could even lower the environmental impact of this system even more, and because of its special licensing procedures for the FAA this might be the place to experiment with this fuel outside of commercial civil aviation in a way which could not be done in a normal CAA or FAA programme because the engines we currently use have to be certified with the current fuels because of the safety regimes for passengers. As to the environment impact, I cannot tell you precisely what it is yet because we are going through the licensing manufacturing process to lead to the test flights next year. All I can tell you is that it is eight people to space for less CO2 output than a business class ticket from London to New York to put it in those round terms. From the point of view of the re-entry, the really fascinating thing about the re-entry with the SpaceShip Two system is it has zero environmental impact because you are on a glide. You come in on this re-entry, this shuttlecock, and then it forms into a glider and glides back down to the runway so there is no environmental impact at all on the way back into the earth.

  Mr Gazzard: When we were discussing in more general terms, first of all I accept that obviously a two-engine plane, with payload slung beneath it, air launching this rocket-powered capsule with fuel at the moment, which is a mixture of the nitrous oxide and a butadiene component and solid fuel—tyres—is going to burn for 76 seconds. Let us not be churlish, that is a fairly minimal environmental impact even in space. If the launch site is confined, which it probably will be, to sunnier areas of the world for obvious reasons, they will also be confined for regulatory reasons in the States as well. I accept what Whitehorn has implied about bureaucracy attached to EU and UK agencies which alone will probably kill any European launch, but fundamentally from the safety view point you have to have clean, clear and protected air space and that to me signifies these will always be launched from Mojave or New Mexico. That is fine. This whole question of whether this is a viable project, it is tourism and tourism does have impacts. These may well be minimal once we have seen the statement but equally people have to get there. They have to take a transatlantic flight so, whilst the space flight might be somewhat less than a transatlantic flight, unless they can walk on water, and I know there are some pretty powerful entrepreneurs who have booked for this, there will still be a transatlantic flight involved in this self-evidently. Let us not go for that kind of comparison because that does not quite work. This business of it is always jam tomorrow, my understanding of space launches is that you need to put payload into the atmosphere; you need to get it into orbit. You use these current propulsion systems and you get a guaranteed result apart from the risk of it exploding and not going into orbit. What we are talking about here is you are not going to launch a satellite from below your aircraft launcher. Presumably this is going to be a payload section with an opening bit in the two and a half minutes that you are in space orbit. That is going to be some sight to fly up, open the doors, launch the satellite, hope it spins, shut the doors, cross your fingers and hope you are back with your shuttlecock feathering to land somewhere along the line.

  Mr Whitehorn: No, a different launch vehicle altogether. I said a payload launch system to launch a different type of payload.

  Mr Gazzard: To summarise, fairly minimal controllable environmental impacts if they are limited to one or two sites. Safety aspects we can come on to. I still feel, and we did discuss this around the office and chuckled about it but we did take it seriously, we did actually really think that this is extreme ironing in space. I cannot see any benefits to this. If there are payload benefits as the system develops, fine and dandy, but these are at least 10 years away maybe more. At the moment it is just like sitting here going to the opening of a car door and celebrating that as far as I can see. I am sorry if that is a bit rude. I can see no benefit for anybody, apart from Virgin's branding, in this project, and the fact that because they can they will.

  Chairman: You would have been unhappy with Columbus.

  Q521  Dr Turner: You obviously feel that space tourism per se is a bit of a frivolity.

  Mr Gazzard: Yes.

  Q522  Dr Turner: If the technology could be used to project payloads into space, is there a prospect that you could use this technology platform to replace rocket launch delivery of payloads which we have already all agreed have a very significant environmental impact? Is there a prospect of replacing the rocket launcher with this system and thereby avoiding some of the climate damage which currently results from use of the present technology?

  Mr Whitehorn: Absolutely. I think I would want to re-emphasise the fact that we would not be investing $200 million in this project if it was just about taking a few people into space to have a look at the sites because it would not justify the investment in the long term. I would like to state that this system can not only be used exactly as you just described, to avoid ground based rocketry for certain types of payload and science launch in the future, but beyond that this can also be the beginnings of a system whereby when we do need to move people right around the planet we can consider doing it outside the atmosphere instead of inside the atmosphere. We have the SpaceShip Three concept already in our minds, and a SpaceShip Four beyond it, but we have to walk before we run. I do feel reminded of a debate that happened in this chamber in the 1830s about train travel. I remember the very words being used about a frivolity for the rich and "by the way it is going to be dangerous and they might even not be able to get oxygen properly and what is the point when we have canals and horses". I am sorry but I simply cannot agree with almost a word that Jeff has said.

  Mr Gazzard: I can take you to Manchester, near where I live in South Manchester, and show you a plaque where the MP was killed by the train.

  Mr Whitehorn: William Hoskinson was his name and he was a very brave man and right to stand up for train travel.

  Chairman: You have lived up to expectations. This has been a session of tremendous interest and Will Whitehorn, Dr Patrick Collins and Jeff Gazzard we thank you enormously for your contributions this morning. We do regard this as an important element within the whole report and it is important we report on that.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 17 July 2007