Jun 13 2010

Can the UK Lead the New Space Age?

David Ashford of Bristol Spaceplanes Limited, says the answer is “Yes!” assuming development of airplane-like, reusable launchers or “spaceplanes” by the UK; see Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (Vol. 62, No. 10, pp. 354-361). He believes the UK can become a leader because of it’s long history with rocket fighter technology, and by being (somewhat inadvertantly!) well-positioned to take advantage of the prevailing expendable launcher mind-set.

Does the Saunders Roe Rocket Fighter of 1957 hold the secret to the new Space Age? Click

Ashford’s article is particularly interesting because of his: 1) advocacy of this near-term aviation approach to space access, 2) presentation of a roadmap showing how the UK could become its leader, and 3) sketch of the “new space age” — which is compatible with the anticipated 2015 Maslow Window — in terms of markets and an approximate timeframe.

Spaceplanes are Exciting

Spaceplanes should be able to significantly reduce the cost of access to space (by at least 2 orders of magnitude) and were studied over 40 years ago. For example, the USAF/NASA X-15 rocket plane (1959-68) became “the first fully reusable spacefaring vehicle.” Although suborbital, the X-15 set many altitude and speed records. Two X-15 flights went above 100 km (both in 1963 with Joe Walker) and Pete Knight reached 4519 mph (Mach 6.70) in 1967. Neil Armstrong — the first human on the Moon in 1969 — flew seven X-15 missions.

A happy Neil Armstrong poses with his X-15 rocket plane. Click .

Early in the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window, the X-15 had a major impact on pop culture through a 1961 movie of the same name that featured videos of actual X-15 flights; it’s still available on Amazon.com. Directed by Richard Donner (e.g., “Superman”, “Lethal Weapon”, “Maverick”), several of the movie’s stars remain well-known today, including Charles Bronson, Mary Tyler Moore, and James Gregory.

Instead of spaceplanes, Cold War time pressures (the “space race”) and the need to minimize costs led to the use of converted expendable ballistic missiles, including ICBMs (e.g., Atlas), to launch early satellites and humans into space.

The UK’s Advantages

Ashford argues that the UK’s 1950s experience developing the Saunders Roe SR.53, a prototype for a mixed jet and rocket propulsion fighter, indicates that a program for a small suborbital spaceplane (the “Ascender) “does not need any new technology.” The Ascender would reach Mach 3 on its way to 100 km altitude. It would carry one pilot and one passenger (or experiment) and have 2 HTP and kerosene rocket engines (for lift-off and ascent) and 2 jet engines (for back-up). The suborbital Ascender could be used for astronaut training, technology development, and science, as well as “carrying passengers on space experience flights.”

The second UK advantage is psychological. Because the “main obstacle” to a spaceplane approach to space access is

the mind-set induced by five decades of expendable launchers. The UK is probably best placed to break from this mold of thinking because it has no significant commitment to expendable launchers or human spaceflight using these for transportation.

If the government were to match industry to fund the entry-level spaceplane, the UK could lead the way to the new space age.

Although these are clearly marketing talking points for Ashford’s firm, they also display admirable ebullient qualities characteristic of the approaching 2015 Maslow Window and may be of real strategic value to near-term human expansion into the cosmos.

The New Space Age

Ascender would be followed by a first-generation orbital spaceplane called “Spacecab” — a one ton payload-class (e.g., up to 6 astronauts), two-stage-to-orbit, piloted, horizontal take-off and landing vehicle. Spacecab could launch satellites, deliver crew and supplies to space stations and beyond, and take thrilled passengers to space hotels. It would make routine maintenance and use of space stations more economical and contribute technology and operational expertise to the development of reusable, less expensive heavy lift vehicles.

Ashford indicates that the routine use of spaceplanes will result in space losing its “exceptionalism” because “access to orbit will become routine.”

Reusable space tugs would be used for higher orbits, and these could be readily adapted as lunar transfer vehicles … The cost of the first lunar base would be about 10 times less with this approach then it would have been with Constellation. Ten times! …

The cost of science in space will approach that in Antarctica …The term “new space age” is becoming recognized as a suitable name for this radically improved space scenario.

Although our (Ashford’s and my) concepts for the new space age are defined somewhat differently, they are likely to amount to the same thing, so it’s interesting to compare timescales. He shows the spaceplane road map culminating with Spacebus in about 15 years, and the New Space Age itself beginning about 7 years earlier.

Thus Ashford’s New Space Age might start sometime between 2018 and 2020 if spaceplane development began within the next 2 years. Based on macroeconomic data and historical patterns of the last 200 years — including current global trends — the next Maslow Window should open near 2015 and close around 2025.

Definitely the same ballpark.

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