Does Britain really need a space port?

Plus: Sky TV accounts for most of UK's 'space sector'


Is there really any such thing as a spaceport? Especially one with a runway?

There are exceptions to the launch-near-the-equator rule (spy satellites, for instance, need to be in high-angled orbits and don't find an Eastern push as useful as other spacecraft do) but in general it's safe to say that if the human race starts to build spaceports that are actually ports - termini through which serious amounts of people and payload move - in the near future, they are likely to be near the Equator, not in Britain.

There also has to be some doubt whether space ports will actually need runways, like Spaceport America and Mojave Port and the proposed IoD British facility. The only way to put something into orbit from a runway at the moment is the Pegasus air-launched rocket, and it is limited to payloads of 1,000lb. There are plans to scale this concept up enormously, but for now and for the entire history of human spaceflight the great majority of cargo and all people have been launched into space vertically from a pad. With the demise of the space shuttle, the huge majority of stuff and people coming back from space will not be arriving via runway either. (The only exceptions being the mysterious secret payloads carried by the US Air Force's pocket-sized robot spaceplane, the X-37B).

The traffic to and from orbit in the coming decade or two, whether commercial or governmental, would seem set to go up on multi-stage rocket stacks in the style of yesteryear (often the very same technology as yesteryear, too - SpaceX is deploying all-new kit, but most of its competition intend to use rockets dating back as far as the 1960s). The people and a small amount of the stuff will come back down in capsules, splashing down into the ocean or dropping onto the Kazakh steppes - or, if SpaceX can convince regulators it's safe, setting down on a pad using vertical rocket thrust. As and when this happens, the landing pad probably won't be very near the launching one, though - the idea of a space "port" as an integrated facility for both departures and arrivals is probably not very realistic either.

So not much call for runways, at the real spaceports of the near future, and indeed the idea of an integrated port where spacecraft both arrive and depart (as the Shuttle did at Kennedy, when the weather didn't force a diversion to California) would seem to be over for now. Or is it?

There is one prospect that could mean runway spaceports, and better still - for logistical and cost reasons - runways used both for takeoff and landing. That prospect is, as many regular Reg readers will know, the "Skylon" spaceplane design from British firm Reaction Engines.

If the Skylon's radical Sabre engines can be built, and the craft's enormous yet lightweight and heatproof aeroshell can be made, there will be something new in the world of space flight at last. A Skylon would take off from a runway and accelerate to Mach 6 using air to oxidise its fuel and provide most of its reaction mass, as a jet plane does. Then, having left most of the atmosphere below it, the spaceplane would switch to rocket mode for the final surge up to orbital velocity. Having delivered its payload it would re-enter and land on a runway as space shuttles used to - potentially the same runway it took off from. There would be no need to stand it up vertically and fix it to a booster for the next takeoff: it could be refuelled, reloaded, serviced and simply roll back out to fly again.

Skylon and Sabre aren't entirely conceptual, either. The heart of the Sabre, the bleeding-edge precooler which will almost-instantly liquefy oxygen from the air has been tested for real and its main obstacle - the matter of not having the precooler clog itself up with ice from water vapour in the air - has been overcome.

That said, Reaction Engines believes it will need a cool $12bn to make a Skylon fly: and it remains unclear that it can pay such an investment back on the time scales that money men demand. Skylons, too, wouldn't just need a runway - they'd need a special runway far longer than normal, with a special extra-tough surface as the spaceplanes must take off and land at much higher speeds than jets do. Also the Skylon uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen fuel, which has proven to be very expensive to store and handle safely, so much so that SpaceX rockets (and others such as the successful Atlas V) run on kerosene instead.

By contrast, SpaceX has a big order book, is turning a profit, and the company expects tomorrow to launch a cargo capsule to the space station which will not only be cheaper than the existing Russian Progress and European ATV ships but more capable as well. Unlike a Progress or an ATV, a SpaceX Dragon can return to Earth - it doesn't have to be thrown away to burn up in the atmosphere after a single use.

Reaction Engines chief Alan Bond, who has been pushing the Skylon project since the 1980s, was at the IoD this morning, and told The Reg about the successful precooler tests. He added that the Skylon's novel carbon aeroshell material has now moved off the drawing board, and has passed lab tests showing that it can perform its task without trouble.

We also asked Bond for his thoughts on suborbital "space" tourism.

"I once nearly got lynched for comparing it to a fairground ride," he said. "They're in a completely different industry to us."

That's certainly true: suborbital tourism hasn't actually got a whole lot to do with space launch. Then, space launch is by no means the same business as building satellites. And neither of them have a whole lot to do with Sky TV.

It's not at all clear that anybody should be doing suborbital "space" tourism, then. And it's also not all clear that the fact of the UK having a £1bn, 7,000-employee satellite-making business means that we should get into space launch. Then, if the UK was to get into space launch - which might very well be an excellent commercial idea in its own right, not to mention for independent-nuclear-deterrent reasons - sadly it isn't really clear that Skylon, as opposed to the SpaceX model, would be the right way to do so. Concorde was a much cooler and more advanced concept than the jumbo jet, after all, but in retrospect you have to say that it was the wrong call.

And no matter what the right way ahead is for the UK here, we should probably stop telling ourselves that having Sky TV means we're big in space. ®

Bootnote

*For instance an insight into the highly opaque world of launch costs and insurance is given.

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