CORPORATE GROUPTHINK IS HOLDING BACK A NEW GOLDEN AGE OF SPACE
© David Ashford, 23 January 2014
The main problem with spaceflight is its expense: it costs in the region of £20 million to send someone to orbit. There is a straightforward and fairly obvious way of slashing this cost, which is to replace throwaway launchers like ballistic missiles with reusable ones like aeroplanes that can provide an ‘airline’ service to and from orbit—spaceplanes. To get a feel for the profound difference between an expendable and a reusable vehicle, try to imagine air travel if each airliner could fly once only! Spaceplanes were widely considered feasible in the 1960s but have never been built. This failure, primarily by NASA and the other large space agencies, has led to a defensive corporate groupthink that is now the major obstacle to the new space age. NASA et al simply will not engage in rational discussion on the subject, even though it can readily be shown that they would save money on present programmes alone by adopting spaceplanes. The cost of the first lunar base, for example, would be about ten times less using spaceplanes than using the large expendable launchers at present under development, even including the cost of developing the spaceplanes themselves. An open public debate is needed to bring forward the achievement of everyday access to space.
In spite of this space agency failure, private sector initiatives will lead eventually to the new space age. The cost of sending someone to orbit will come down about one thousand times from a few tens of millions of pounds to a few tens of thousands. There will be a new golden age of space science and exploration. Passenger visits to space hotels will become widely affordable. Many of you readers will be able to take the holiday of a lifetime in space. These are reliable predictions based on present developments and straightforward analysis.
The key development is that several private-sector companies are now building spaceplanes that can offer brief flights up and down to space height, with a total time in space of a few minutes. The market leader is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which plans to start commercial passenger flights this year or next, and there are several others not very far behind. It is all but certain that one of these companies, or an as yet unfunded competitor, will eventually make a commercial success of brief passenger space experience flights. There is simply no likely reason why this should not happen. A market clearly exists, and the technology was demonstrated by the US X-15 experimental spaceplane that first flew to space as far back as 1961. There may well be setbacks. However, the history of engineering shows that if a demonstrator is built of a product for which there is a significant potential demand, that demand will eventually be satisfied.
With maturing technology and economies of scale, the fare for a brief flight to space will come down from the present one hundred thousand pounds plus to just a few thousand. There will then be a fleet of at least several dozen spaceplanes each making more than one flight per day to space. Given the high cost of spaceflight today, these predictions might seem extreme. However, from the cost point of view, the only fundamental difference between a spaceplane capable of brief flights to space and a small business jet is that the former has to use rocket engines because jet engines need air and there is no air in space.
There is no fundamental reason why rocket engines should cost vastly more than jets. For example, the British Saunders Roe SR.53 rocket fighter was designed for full operational use and first flew in 1957. If it had entered service and been fully developed, its cost per flight would have been not much more than that of a jet fighter. When it was cancelled as a fighter in 1958, there was a feasible proposal to convert the prototypes for space research. In this way, the UK could have had an affordable space programme, including brief passenger flights to space in a two-seat derivative, in the 1960s! Low cost requires a reasonable number of fully reusable vehicles each making one or more flights per day, and does not depend on advanced technology.
When brief flights to space become routine, the advantages of spaceplanes over throwaway launchers will be clear for all to see. Then one or more private companies are likely to propose a spaceplane that can fly all the way to orbit to launch satellites, carry crew and supplies to and from space stations, and carry passengers to space hotels. A fully orbital spaceplane is more demanding technically than one capable of just brief up and down flights because it requires a maximum speed about eight times greater. However, all the required technologies have been demonstrated in flight on various projects and such a project would now be straightforward to develop. (As mentioned above, they were considered feasible in the 1960s.) The big space agencies will then be dragged, perhaps unwillingly at first, into supporting such a project because they will be unable to argue against saving money on present programmes alone, let alone future ones. This will revolutionise spaceflight by offering greatly reduced cost and improved safety. Operations like missiles will be replaced by an aviation approach. The revolution will be as profound as that to air travel triggered by the invention of the aeroplane in 1903. Before then, the only way to fly was in a balloon, and one cannot run an airline service with balloons. In this way, the development of the first orbital spaceplane is likely to start in perhaps five or ten years time.
This wait of five to ten years could be avoided if the big space agencies could be persuaded to take spaceplanes seriously now. It is therefore worth considering the reasons for the present lacuna in their thinking, which arises from the history of spaceflight. The first man-made object capable of reaching space was the German V-2 ballistic missile of World War II. This was followed after the war by bigger and better Soviet and US ballistic missiles. Because ballistic missiles can reach space, it was natural to use them for launching early satellites, the first being the Soviet Sputnik of 1957.
By the early 1960s several large aircraft companies in Europe and the USA were studying spaceplanes to replace these throwaway launchers. These companies included many of the big names of the time: British Aircraft Corporation, Boeing, Bolkow, Bristol Siddeley, Dassault, Douglas, ERNO, Hawker Siddeley, Junkers, Lockheed, McDonnell, Martin, North American and SNECMA. My first job was working in the Hawker Siddeley team. There was a consensus that such a vehicle was the obvious next step, because discarding a launcher for every flight could never become economical. There was also a consensus that spaceplanes were just about feasible with the technology of the time.
In the event, spaceplane development was set back by the next large space project, which was the race to the moon between the Soviet Union and the USA. Winning this race was considered vital to the Cold War propaganda competition between these two superpowers. To save time, expendable launchers were built that were in effect enlarged developments of the converted ballistic missiles then in use. The US Apollo project was a brilliant success, transporting twelve men to the surface of the moon and returning them all safely. The Soviet effort was an expensive failure.
The big question then facing NASA was what to build next. There was by then a clear need for routine and economical transport to and from orbit. The answer was the Space Shuttle. Early designs were true spaceplanes. They were large, to meet the requirements of the Department of Defense. Then President Nixon imposed a budget cut and this large reusable design could no longer be afforded. The expendable habit had by then taken a sufficient hold for NASA to make the disastrous mistake of giving up on full reusability, rather than building a much smaller but fully reusable vehicle that would have brought in the aviation approach. As a result, the Shuttle was just as expensive and risky as the throwaway launchers that it replaced. NASA did not change the prospectus for the Shuttle, even with this profound change to its design, and for the next thirty years had to defend the indefensible.
This history has created institutions and habits of thought that have repeatedly reinforced the throwaway launcher habit. This corporate groupthink is now the biggest obstacle in the way of low-cost access to space. Hence the urgent need for an open public debate.
David Ashford is the Managing Director of Bristol Spaceplanes Limited and the author of Space Exploration: All That Matters, Hodder 2013
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