Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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The Launcher Business

Earth orbit, as Heinlein said, is halfway to anywhere, and the business of getting there is getting interesting.

Back in the day, I used to follow such luminaries of the space access movement as Harry Vanderbilt and the newsgroup (yes – it’s that long ago) sci.space. The mantra in those days was that launch costs could be reduced by freeing up new private companies to innovate, and getting away from ‘cost plus’ style government contracts.

For a brief period there were moves in that direction, with companies great and small looking at cheaper ways into orbit. Alongside the big boys like MacDonald-Douglas with DC-X, were smaller guys like Rotary Rocket and Pioneer Rocketplane. The Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) approach even got so far that NASA funded a number of studies. But all of those came to nothing, including the NASP and the X-33. Not much came of these programmes, and there are a variety of reasons suggested for this. It may be that SSTO is just too technically difficult, but it also may be that certain large companies, with a large market for their existing expendable launch vehicles, didn’t want these upstarts to succeed, and so did their best to make sure the programmes failed.

Now, a decade and more further down the river, things are actually changing, and that’s largely down to Elon Musk, the Falcon 9, and future derivatives such as Falcon-Heavy. While Falcon Heavy has yet to launch, and Falcon 9 has had only four times, its success to date, and its much cheaper costs to orbit and changing things in ways rather similar to those suggested by the space access activists all those years ago. And Musk is now going global, with his launch company, Space-X’s, order book bulging and with him making prognostications that ESA’s Ariane 5 is doomed.

This all comes at the same time that HMG is putting more money into space, and specifically into ESA. While the UK is interested more in satellites and applications than in launch vehicles, the future of ESA’s launcher is still an important factor. It’s unlikely that ESA will ever have a mainstream launcher that it doesn’t have an involvement in, though it is set up to use some Russian launchers in Kouru, but if it ends up with an overpriced system, then it will be at a disadvantage compared to NASA and others. And if that happens the commercial launcher side will die.

So where does ESA and the Ariane launchers go next?

There is already some dispute about whether there should be an evolution of Ariane 5 before a move to a bigger cheaper Ariane 6. But there are other possibilities, and maybe, just maybe, HMG’s new enthusiasm for space might have some connection with it.

Of all the old plans for cheap access to space, one of the most interesting was HOTOL. This was a UK project, with involvement from British Aerospace (as it still was then) and Rolls Royce, and was based on a radically new engine technology that could use oxygen in the atmosphere as an oxidiser while it is available, then switching to an on board oxygen tank once that runs out. This reduces the fuel supply, increases efficiency, and helps keep costs down. HOTOL would operate like a plane, with horizontal take-off and landing (HOTOL), just like Gerry Anderson told us real rockets would work.

Sadly, nothing came of this at the time, and the story of that is an interesting tale of government backing, corporate conservatism, and patent law that is sometimes told at UK SF conventions.

But all was not lost. From the ashes of HOTOL, the engine’s designer, Alan Bond, and his company, Reaction Engines, survived, and a new, better, design emerged. This is called Skylon, and, if reports are correct, they have been getting gradually closer to a working engine. They’re no longer dependent on other large companies, but instead have venture capital funding. They don’t need government backing because of this, so the problems of HOTOL will hopefully be avoided.

But if there’s a new, cheap, frankly, world beating launcher technology emerging from the UK, the government will surely want to have something to do with it. By putting more money into ESA the UK will get more out of the organisation. While much of this will be in the form of the new ESA centre at Harwell, is it possible that some of these new crumbs will fall towards Skylon, allowing, at the very least, a Union Flag to fly on it and, just maybe, have Skylon as a candidate new launch system for ESA?