Bristol Spaceplanes Ascender
After a few years of the Ascender spaceplane being in service, its UK creators believe it will cost just a few thousand pounds for you to experience sub orbital flight.
The promise is being made by a veteran of the aviation industry, David Ashford, an Imperial College aeronautical engineering graduate and managing director of Bristol Spaceplanes who has been regaling the benefits, viability and cost efficiency of a reusable space vehicle for the past 60 years. This week, he's testing its draw on an investors' crowdfunding platform.
Although Ashford's 1990 prediction -- as encapsulated in his book Your Spaceflight Manual: How You Could Be a Tourist in Space Within Twenty Years -- did not come to fruition, he now thinks we have the means and money to make it happen. The one thing that's been holding us back? A Cold War mentality we struggled for too long to shake off.
"My first job was working on reusable launchers in the 60s. They were widely considered feasible at the time but pressures of the Cold War space race led to their not being developed," explains Ashford. "This accident of history created a mindset that space travel has to be risky and expensive, and the habit of throwing away a launcher for each flight has taken a firm hold. We maintain that combining old designs with modern technology can soon lead to an 'airline' service to space, with the UK firmly at the helm."
Ashford told Wired.co.uk his 1990 book was used as a reference point for Nasa when it conducted its first study into space tourism, and by 1993 Bristol Spaceplanes had entered into a contract with the European Space Agency to run a feasibility study into its Spacecab orbital spaceplane. A follow-up review by the British National Space Centre "broadly endorsed" the company's conclusions, said Ashford, that "advanced technology was not needed for an orbital spaceplane, and that development costs should be easily affordable". It was not until 2008, however, that they began bench-testing the rocket engine in the Mojave Desert. In 2011, the company received a grant from the Technology Strategy Board to carry out market research on its projects, two years after Richard Branson had unveiled his own spacrecraft, SpaceShipTwo.
While the inspiration behind SpaceShipTwo was the X-series of rocket planes flown by the US Air Force in the late 50s -- in particular, the X-15, which reached heights of 110km, beyond where space is deemed to start -- Ashford's was the Saunders Roe SR.53, a British-made jet and rocket propulsion plane.
"When it was cancelled as a fighter, Saunders Roe proposed converting the prototypes for space research," Ashford tells Wired.co.uk. "They would have had suborbital performance. This was a feasible proposal and generated significant interest but not enough to make it happen. Our Spacecab orbital follow-on to Ascender takes what we think are the best features of the 60s round of spaceplane studies, which were carried out by most large aircraft companies at the time. This depth of study has never since been matched, and we maintain that most of these designs would have been far better in terms of lowering launch cost than anything built since then, or even proposed by a large companies. Of course, Spacecab will use up to date technology."
The Spacecab will bridge the gap between the Ascender, a smaller sub-orbital spaceplane used at the preliminary stages, and the Spacebus, a larger version of the Spacecab. Both larger vehicles should be capable of orbital spaceflight. The Spacecab is designed to be launched from a carrier plane, much like how Virgin Galactic's spacecraft lifts-off from the White Knight Two mothership platform midflight.
"In an engineering sense it's a big challenge," Bob Waters Director of the Innovation Growth Team at the UK Space Agency, told Wired.co.uk, speaking about the plan in general. "But it's a sensible sort of engineering approach."
Although space tourism is the ultimate goal for Bristol Spaceplanes, it plans on using the Spacecab to deliver supplies to space stations and launch satellites. "It is the first successful orbital spaceplane that will transform spaceflight, by slashing the cost of launching satellites, ferrying crews to and from space stations, and flying passengers to and from space hotels," predicts Ashford.
Its space tourism that will be the largest market though, says Ashford, "and the first to bring in the economies of scale needed to slash costs".
He estimates that a seat on the smaller Ascender will begin at £100,000, but will go down to a few thousand pounds within years. "In terms of cost, the only fundamental difference between Ascender and a small business jet is that the former has to use rocket engines. At present these are more expensive than jets because they have a short life. But this can be put right by continuous product improvement. So we are talking about aeroplanes instead of missiles -- hence the cost reduction."
Why then, has it taken so many decades for this to get any kind of traction if it was always going to be cost-effective? Ashford maintains that it's the fault of a "mind-set induced by more than fifty years of using throwaway launchers".
"Spaceplanes are not in the strategic plans of major players. There is no rational reason for space agencies not to pursue spaceplane development vigorously -- they would save money on present programmes alone, let alone new ones."
The company is seeking initial funds of £150,000 through a CrowdCube campaign and will offer investors providing £5,000 with a heavily discounted flight on one of its spaceplanes, and anyone investing £20,000 a free ride. Compare that to a seat aboard Virgin Galactic's spaceplanes -- US$250,000 (£150,000). The funds will go towards the final design of the demonstrator spacecraft, the Microsonic, which the company will market. It hopes to then team up with a major aeroplane manufacturer and wants, ultimately, to show that the cost of space travel can be reduced by 1,000 times in 15 years, with the unveiling of its orbital Spacebus.
Obviously Bristol Spaceplanes seems a fair few steps behind the likes of Virgin Galactic, which is planning its first sub-orbital flight for this year. But Ashford is okay with playing the long game to reach cost-effective, orbital space tourism.
"Compared with our suborbital Ascender entry-level spaceplane, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo is larger and more ambitious," says Ashford. "It carries six passengers, who are free to float around in zero gravity during the three or so minutes in space. Ascender carries one passenger, who remains strapped in during the flight, to concentrate on enjoying the magnificent view of Earth from on high. We want to gain operational experience as soon as is practical, for the benefit of later designs. Ascender is designed as a lead-in project to our Spacecab orbital spaceplane. Flying to orbit requires about eight times more speed than up and down suborbital flight, and therefore needs a larger and more advanced spaceplane."
Waters of the UK Space Agency tells Wired.co.uk he thinks Ashford is quite sensibly pushing the project forward at a time when large private companies are moving into the sector. "There is something that's happening round the world now with services starting to operate -- we feel that Virgin Galactic might start operations in the US this year, and of course Xcor is advertising on the television. David's picking up on the back of that. The concept is not new, it goes back to 50s, but the reality of doing that for a sensible price and safely -- he's trying to achieve this."