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Friday, March 30, 2012

Big Engineering 50 - Specific Commercial to Orbit Project.

   Some time ago I wrote of Dr Patrick Collins evidence to Parliament about how the 1960 British rocket plane the SR53 could be used as the basis of a suborbital craft. I have since had some email discussion with him (he is currently in Japan - you go where the work is) and he and David Ashford who runs Bristol Spaceplanes politely listened to my ideas.

     This is from the Bristol site and they had cleverly managed to incorporate most of my ideas before I had them.

      Ascender is a small sub-orbital spaceplane designed to use existing technology and to pave the way for later vehicles on our development sequence. Ascender is specifically designed to generate spaceplane revenues at minimum development cost and risk, and thereby to be attractive to private-sector investment.

Ascender carries one pilot and one passenger or experiment. The passenger remains strapped in his/her seat during the flight. Ascender takes off from an ordinary airfield using its turbo-fan engine and climbs at subsonic speed to a height of 8 km. The pilot then starts the rocket engine and pulls up into a steep climb. Ascender has a maximum speed of around Mach 3 on a steep climb and can reach a height of 100 km....

Ascender would be the first spaceplane capable of taking off under its own power and of making several flights to space per day...

Ascender would be the first spaceplane capable of taking off under its own power and of making several flights to space per day....

The cost to early operational use is comparable to that of just one fighter aeroplane off the production line. This remarkably low cost is made possible by the design concept and by excluding any component not essential for the basic mission.

   This is basically the updated SR43 he had discussed. It is relatively unspecific about the cost  but since I am not in the technical loop I feel able to point out that the "average unit costs of Nato fighters is $112 million" (£71 million) and we have some below average cost planes so pretty much the same as the £50 million he first told Parliament.
  A suborbital like this is clearly commercial in the tourist industry (2 flights a day at £120,000 matching Virgin is £87 million a year); could allow endless experimental packages experimenting on the production on new zero-G materials; and should, militarily be usable as a platform for anti-missile satellites, as used by the US.

   But I find the follow up to this Spacecab, considerably more interesting. 

a fully reusable spaceplane designed to use only existing technology. It is in effect an enlarged and refined Ascender—or a much-simplified Concorde—only Spacecab will be air-launched from a carrier aeroplane, also derived from Ascender. It could start passenger operations much earlier than a new vehicle that requires new engines to be developed....

fully reusable orbital operations soon and at minimum development cost and risk. The cost of developing Spacecab is equivalent to about three Shuttle flights. Spacecab is a candidate to be the first orbital spaceplane, as it has the lowest cost and risk of any contending project.

The orbiter carries a crew of two and has a cabin with a capacity for six passengers or space station crew or a payload of up to 750 kg of cargo. Its blunt, swept-back shape reflects the fact that streamlining is not required for flight in space and reduces heating during reentry into the atmosphere.

Spacecab's most basic design features have been selected so that existing technology can be used. As such, it can be readily certifiable for airline standards. It therefore incorporates as many conventional airliner design features as practicable, such as carrying pilots and taking off and landing horizontally.

In order to use existing engines and proven materials, and to have the margins required for civil certification, the booster has four turbojet engines to provide the power for take-off, acceleration to Mach 2, flyback and landing, plus two rocket engines to accelerate Spacecab from Mach 2 to Mach 4, at which point the orbiter will separate...

As Spacecab can be built using existing technology, Spacecab's development should not be that much more difficult than a high-performance aeroplane....

The development cost and timescale of the prototype of each stage should be comparable with that of the prototype of an advanced aeroplane, and the estimated total cost is approximately $1 billion. (£600 mill) This prototype could be used for early operational flights to orbit and would be ideal for launching small satellites and ferrying crews and passengers to and from space.

Spacecab was the subject of a feasibility study funded by the European Space Agency (contract number 10411/93/F/TB) in 1993-1994. The main conclusions were that new technology was not needed for an operational prototype and that development cost to initial operations would be equivalent to the cost of just two or three Shuttle flights. This study was broadly endorsed by an independent review commissioned by the then UK Minister for Space, Ian Taylor, MP.

   Personally I would be happy to see it initially operating at lower than civil aircraft certification levels (ie landing by glide not engines rather like thingamajig and the military providing the air launch facilities with an existing craft. That would reduce costs and increase capacity but is entirely dependent on political support, which  is the problem.

   Spacebus is sufficient to industrialise earth orbit and as long as there is a a space station where the bits can be put together, to produce pretty much anything. 3 planes (the credible minimum for any fleet, launching twice a day could put 1.6 million kg a year. There are also a number of high acceleration launch systems suitable for getting cargo but not people up, which would work well in tandem with this people mover.

   Or we could go to Spacebus
Spacebus, BSP's second generation orbital spaceplane, is a larger version of Spacecab, itself an evolution of Ascender. The design of Spacebus is such that a prototype could be built a few years after Spacecab without requiring a significant programme of enabling technology. Spacebus weighs about twice as much as Concorde, which is probably close to the practicable upper limit for a spaceplane using existing runways. Both stages are piloted and take-off and land horizontally.

...designed to carry fifty people or equivalent cargo....

 The carrier aeroplane accelerates to Mach 4 using turbo-ramjets of new design but with existing technology. Rocket engines are then used to accelerate to Mach 6 and to climb to the edge of space where air and thermal loads are low. The orbiter then separates and accelerates to orbit....

A useful comparison can be made with a new supersonic or hypersonic airliner. The cost per flight would be approximately $125,000 (250 passengers at $500 each). Such an airliner would be of comparable size and shape to the lower stage of Spacebus.

In broad-brush terms, the two vehicles should have a comparable cost per flight when Spacebus has matured to airliner standards. The upper stage is more advanced but is also smaller; as such, the smaller size counters the increased complexity. We can roughly estimate that its cost will be approximate to the lower stage. Thus the Spacebus upper stage also has an estimated cost per flight of the same order.

The least mature systems of Spacebus, in terms of life and maintenance requirements, are the thermal protection system, rocket motors, hydrogen fuel system, and transparencies. However, this is a lot less ambitious than many spaceplane proposals, and there is no reason why the maturation of these systems should involve more than straight-forward product improvement over a decade or two of operational experience.

As with any aeroplane development for commercial use it will take several years of in-service experience and continuous product improvement.

   Bearing in mind that we are much better off than previous generations a system that can put 50 people in orbit at the same cost as 250 on an international flight (ie $2500/£1,600) this is cheaper, comparatively, than emigration to Australia in my youth. It has proven possible to settle Australia (actually it proved possible a century and a half earlier.

So Getting It Done

The way Bristol are planning it they are intending to build Ascender and bootstrap their way up to Spacebus. That is perfectly feasible but since  "new technology was not needed" for Spacebus there seems no technological reason to wait. Particularly with SpaceX and others pushing forward.

So why don't they?

As Heinlein said the answer to any question that starts why don't they is money. But in this case it is also politics.

    When Thatcher said she wanted the Channel Tunnel built by the market ot didn't just happen She and other ministers did a bit of discreet pressure on the pension funds and other big financiers put up £4 bn. They eventually lost much of it when the Tunnel went bust but I don't think anybody would dispute that Britain is better off with the tunnel. "Building infrastructure specially transport infrastructure" is almost the only situation where government spending is beneficial because the multiplier effects of such investment are far greater than elsewhere. A system that can get people cheaply to orbit is the ultimate in transport.

   If Bristol have not yet got £50 million from the market to build Ascender, or perhaps the regulatory permision it is because the politicians are actively against it. Investors don't invest where government discourages it. This fits with the record of Dr Collins before the Science & Technology Committee where a number of the MPs put more effort into discouraging anything on the grounds that if we got a successful British commercial industry we would see American businessmen flying over here to do business & thus producing carbon. Reallyt

   I am sure that one government minister or perhaps even well known backbencher telling the City of London that a £50 m invested in Ascender would be in the national interest and that the government would do its best to make it commercial, would bring forward enough investment to get it going. A Russian oligarch wishing to settle here would find it got him more respect than funding a football club - assuming the politicians weren't actively against it..

   Supportive words from across the government would get the £600 million for Spacebus. This is 1/7th what the Channel Tunnel cost in money that has been inflating for over 20 years.

   Of course government could also fund it from the £275 million annually we give to the ESA bureaucrats; or the £450 million we give to NERC, one of many quangos existing to promote global warming carastrophism. Or we could put up about 1/3rd (£20 million for Ascender, £200 million for Spacebus) as an X-Prize - a Harverd study showed that innovation prizes normally cost about 30% to the donor of what the winner spends

    £20 million is the Saltire Prize the Scottish government have put up for a successful sea turbine. Tnns is orders of magnitude more important &if Scotland alone put up this prize it would a significant way to getting our economy into a technological hub.

    If Britain doesn't do this and become the world leader in space development (& get into the biggest economic boom since Columbus) it is not in any way because we can't afford it. It will be because the politicians have deliberately decided they don't want  progress, they want Luddism.

   When our governors made it impossible for the team that created Dolly the Sheep to work they moved to Singapore (growth rate 14.4% with a strong biotech element) where they were welcomed with open arms.

   I am a British patriot and would love to see our country achieve this. But I am a human patriot first and if our government continue to set their face against it I hope Mr Ashford will achieve something that even this government and the EU recognise as practical for Singapore or New Mexico or Dubai or Volgograd or Tokyo or Shanghai or Rio or Adelaide or Vancouver Spaceplanes rather than Bristol.

   And if he is forced to do that we will all know exactly whose fault that will be.

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Yo, Wolfie!

Thanks for sending this item. You've put a lot of time into its research so please don't be discouraged to learn that much of this has been known to the Space fraternity for many years. (And, if it's the same person as I think it may well be, the name is Dr. Patrick Collins)

When I think of Richard Branson going over to the U.S. to have Burt Rutan's Scaled Models company build sub-orbital 'planes (two needed) for 'Virgin Galactic' with these aircraft struggling for money in this country, I shake my head in bewilderment.

David Ashford's company, Bristol Aeroplanes has been promoting the 'Ascender' craft since the 1990s -- in vain. This small jet/rocket combination could have done what Richard Branson's two 'planes are hoped to do. We could have been operating sub-orbital tourism and scientific flights to-day!

As for British governments (both main parties), they are actively against anything to do with Space it seems.

Britain is UNIQUE in that it is the only country to turn its back on Space -- just as its first home-built satellite was mounted atop its home-built 'Black Arrow' fully-orbital rocket at the Woomera rocket range in Australia in 1971!
The completely disgusted engineers more or less said "We built the bloody thing. Let's launch the Bugger!" -- and they did. The satellite (dead now) is still in orbit!

[Yet you find politicians claiming that "Britain is in the forefront of space activity." -- after some small company raises all finance and does all the work! Aaaargh!]

Regards, Ed B.
Thanks Ed. I have to agree that for the investor atmosphere to have made it impossible to raise even the Ascender investment these investors must believe that every British government since then must be actively against it. The pull out from new nuclear is of the same pattern.

My hope is that some of these politicians may not understand how destructive they have been.

That being the case it becomes obvious that our £270m given to ESA is in no way intended to encourage space development but is entirely patronage to political friends, not least the European bureaucracy, masquerading as space funding. Which in turn shows they know there is some public support for it which they can milk. I wish the space activist community understood it too.

My hope is that UKIP, which is certainly far and away the most technologically progressive party in Britain (admitedly little competition) may adopt a pro-space policy and equally importantly, that the space activist community will support them in doing so.
Just a note, partially to say thanks for this. A timely reminder of the good work of Patrick, David et al is always a good thing.

I really do wish we could think of some way of getting Ascender and its progeny off the ground though. You never know though, just maybe, if Scotland does get independence, we might find it easier to get regulations changed up here and invite David to bring Bristol Spaceplanes up to our country?

All the best, Andy.
Andy I have no doubt that a separate Scotland run by progressives could be much more successful & supportive of stuff like this, as we are within a Britain run by Luddites.

Unfortunately I see no sign at all of any elected party here having the potential to be anything nut reactionary Luddites.
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