The great European space scandal

The designs are complete for a fleet of reusable spaceplanes to rival Nasa's X-33 rocket. But the ESA won't build them. Why? Charles Arthur reports
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David Ashford is incandescent. In fact, he sounds as heated as a rocket burning its way up through the atmosphere. Quite simply, he says, Britain's place - or lack of it - in space is "a scandal".

And indeed, it might seem that we are falling behind. Europe has never had anything like the Space Shuttle; and now we will have something new to compete with. Last week the US space agency Nasa announced that it will get Lockheed to build the prototype for its next generation of spacecraft to replace the ageing fleet of space shuttles. The X-33 is intended to be flying by the end of the century, travelling unmanned up to 80km into space; it is the forerunner to a larger spacecraft, the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV), that will succeed it later next century.

Europe has no such reusable rocket planned, although it does have a program called Festip (Future European Space Transportation Investigation Program) which is looking at the feasibility of a reusable rocket. But meanwhile, the European Space Agency has a recent failure to understand. The report on the explosion of Ariane-5, less than a minute after takeoff, is due later this month. Many engineers are hoping that the cause will be pinpointed to a flaw in the controlling software - an easily-remedied problem - rather than in the design of some other part, or parts, which would entail a costly redesign, followed by even more costly individual and assembled testing.

But what makes Ashford, head of Bristol Spaceplanes, so furious is that he reckons Britain, and Europe, could have a project comparable to the X-33 up and running well before the Americans, taking bigger loads into space for less money. And he knows because he submitted his plans to the British National Space Centre back in 1991.

"I call it the Great British Space Scandal," he says. "For a billion pounds we could develop a fleet of spaceplanes that would have all the characteristics of the American one - except that it could carry a crew and get into orbit as well." Carrying a crew is an important aspect, since it means that real payloads - such as small communications satellites - could be taken up and placed in the low orbits where they are required.

"Anybody who had a small, cheap spaceplane now would be able to make a killing," says Richard Tremayne-Smith, of the British National Space Centre. "There are potentially hundreds of satellites going up. There's a proven market, and those satellites, once up, will need resupplying from time to time. You can see large revenue streams for a spaceplane." In a decade, according to Bruce Smith of Smith Systems Engineering, the world market for telecommunications satellites in the next ten years will be $30bn. And that doesn't include military customers.

So why, asks Mr Ashford, not go with his designs? He has been designing reusable spaceplanes for 30 years; his latest is called the Ascender, which he reckons needs only an initial pounds 35m of industrial and other funding to get the project going. It could be built by 1999, and if all the tests go well, could carry fare-paying payloads into orbit three years later. Building a fleet would cost about a billion pounds.

The design is comparatively simple - unsurprising, as Mr Ashford has had many goes at refining it. His first job was in an aerospace team that was designing an orbital spaceplane. Since then he has produced many tweaked designs to follow the requirements of the day. The latest is the Ascender, which would initially be powered by a Rolls-Royce Viper jet engine, which would take it 8km high.

Then a rocket powered by hydrazine (N2H4) - the fuel of choice for space missions - would take over, taking the capsule to 65km before its fuel store ran out, by which time it would be travelling at three times the speed of sound. The Ascender would then coast to a height of 95km, allowing about two minutes of micro-gravity. "You would be able to see the curvature of the Earth," says Mr Ashford.

And, most important, you would be able to release satellites for uses such as Motorola's planned Iridium global satellite phone project, or for commercial Earth Observation work.

However, ESA is not about to build a spaceplane in the near future - or for some time to come, says Mr Tremayne-Smith. "First, there's just no money available," he says. "Festip is largely being led by Germany; the UK and France aren't involved, and aren't putting any money into it." Anyway, for the time being Festip is only looking at available technologies and systems.

"The idea that European governments will suddenly start spending money to build reusable launchers is just plain wrong. The world has already built one - the Space Shuttle. We know it can be done. What really matters is the economics, and whether it's cost-effective."

The average one-off launcher, such as Ariane-5, costs about pounds 100m. To beat that, a reusable spaceplane would have to cost at least five times less per launch, and ideally 10 times less. As long as it is truly reusable, the one-off cost of building it is quickly amortised by the savings on the delicate assembly needed for disposable launchers.

However, the British government appears stretched for cash for even the simplest things. Ian Taylor, the minister for science, told a recent meeting in London that space projects were to receive an extra pounds 10m of funding this year. "But don't ask me where I got it from," he said, as though expecting his audience to query him immediately. "There is, as you should know, no such thing as new money. I have a budget and I can fiddle with it." The clear implication being, of course, that the Government sees space as key: "A successful space program is in the national interest," he told the audience, which comprised the cream of Britain's space expertise.

Instead, ESA does not plan to test any sort of reusable space launcher probably for another 15 to 20 years. Festip will watch how Nasa gets on with the X-33 - which is being built for it by Lockheed.

Nasa's move towards a "partnership" with Lockheed has been forced on it by political realities - a restive Congress, annoyed about its huge budget, has forced these changes upon it. As Daniel Goldin, Nasa's administrator said when the contract was announced, "This program is a radical departure from the way Nasa has done business in the past. We won't build the vehicle - industry will. Nasa will be a user, not an operator."

Lockheed, in turn, will sink $220m in the X-33 design. The overarching purpose of the project is to make it cheaper to get people and payloads into space - which is an increasingly valuable place to be.

"Lockheed's preparedness to sink that money into the project was probably key in its success," says Mr Tremayne-Smith. "I suppose that if we really pulled all the stops out, then we could be just two or three years behind the US." But, he implies, it's unlikely that ESA's priorities will change that suddenly. And it's worth remembering that ESA has always given its clients - the governments (and so taxpayers) - far better value for money than its American rival.

Where does this leave Mr Ashford, and his plan? Unfortunately, still searching for big industrial backing.

It's a pity, really, since one of the uses he envisages for the Ascender is as one of the shortest - but most fun - joyrides of your life. Payloads don't only come in satellite form, after all. Research in Japan had found that up to a million people a year would be prepared to pay $10,000 each to travel, however briefly, into space.

Well, why not go as a passenger on a reusable spaceplane? The trip into space, far enough to see the curve of the Earth, would be only half the fun: the return trip would start with a steep dive at Mach 3, until 25km above the ground, when the pilot would pull the nose up in a gut-wrenching 6g curve, before coasting the capsule back to base. The trip would last 30 minutes. It would certainly beat a funfair.

Mr Ashford reckons that a fleet of 50 Ascenders would be enough to ensure that the revenue flow covered the ongoing and capital costs relatively quickly. But whether they will ever get built remains a question as unknown as space itself.