Today the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority released (to great pre-released fanfare) a shortlist of sites being considered for the site of a UK spaceport. Unfortunately, I fear that this release is based much more on hype than solid capability. As the idea currently stands it is overtly speculative, based on designs that largely have yet to materialise, using a site that has yet to be chosen (while likely requiring large investment that hasn’t been announced yet) and requiring the formation of either dedicated government bodies and legislation, or the massive, rapid adaptation of existing ones.
Given that all these problems have to be solved before 2018, I am highly sceptical that it can be done. There are a lot of problems here, which I’ll divide into Vaporware, What is wrong with rockets?, Legal Problems and The Sites Themselves.
In short, this release is focussed overwhelmingly towards the anticipated adoption of spaceplanes – whether thats in the single stage to orbit form or dropping a spaceplane from a mothership. In a good light, this focus can be described as being uncharacteristically foresighted on the government’s part. The bad part of this spaceplane assumption is that the majority of the designs included in the technical report have yet to even leave the drawing board, either as complete craft or as individual propulsion systems on a testbed. They simply wont be ready by the time 2018 rolls around. Lets take a look at the craft the report is looking at and whether they’re likely to be ready to fly in the next few years.
In no particular order, we have:
Airbus Defence & Space “Spaceplane” – No snappy name here. Subscale, unpowered demonstrator prototype created. Airbus have got deep pockets so probably ready by 2018 or soon after it.
Bristol Spaceplane’s “Ascender” – To date, one engine test and one subscale radio control model. Recently (Jan ’14) attempted to gain private investment on a crowd funding website called CrowdCube – no word on whether a success/failure. Almost certainly NOT ready by 2018.
Orbital Science Corporation’s “Pegasus” – Resembling an oversized cruise missile slung beneath a Lockheed Tristar, this craft has actually been in operation since 1990. Definitely ready and an extremely mature design with the kinks ironed out of it.
Reaction Engines “SKYLON” – The darling of the British media, this craft exists largely on paper. No engine tests have been completed, although the engine pre-cooler has been proven to work in terms of a proof-of-concept prototype – but not actually attached to a prototype engine. Significant funding has been achieved, although it still probably won’t be ready any time before 2022.
Virgin Galactic “Spaceship 2″, air launched from “Whiteknight 2” – A relatively mature design undergoing extensive testing. Prototype has successfully completed multiple tests at supersonic speed under its own power. It’s a pretty safe bet that it will be ready by 2018.
Stratolaunch Systems “Roc” – The Roc, as far as I can tell, has yet to leave the drawing board. Stratolaunch have been remarkably quiet about any progress they’ve made. The Roc itself can be described as as WhiteKnight 2’s monstrously oversized cousin, launching the second generation of Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus (Pegasus II) from a mounting point in the middle of an extremely large wing. Stratolaunch intends for Roc to have a wingspan of nearly 120 meters and be powered by six turbofan engines scavenged from two Boeing 747’s to provide power. At that size, it will be quite literally the largest (by wingspan) aircraft in the world, larger than an A380, The Spruce Goose and the Antonov 225. Although Stratolaunch believe they can have the Roc flying in 2017, I have deep and sincere doubts that they can both create the largest aircraft ever to exist from cannibalised spare parts and simultaneously strap a massive, 40 meter long rocket to launch from it. Frankly, if it wasn’t being bankrolled by Bill Gates’ billionaire Microsoft founding partner, I’d immediately write this off as a crank attempt.
Swiss Space Systems “Soar” – Launched off the back of an Airbus A330, the Soar will be an unmanned craft for getting smaller payloads into orbit. Although originally a Swiss based company, they’ve set up a subsidiary in the USA in order to begin testing. They’re making reasonably good progress using technology that is well understood and at a scale within their grasp. They’re set to start unpowered model glide tests in a matter of weeks, if they havent done so already. They even already have contracts to launch small satellites from a Swiss pharmaceutical company to run experiments in zero gravity. Will probably be ready by 2018 given their current rate of progress.
XCOR Aerospace “Lynx” – It has to be said, the Lynx is probably going to win the first generation single stage to space title. XCOR have made a lot of progress with their design and are probably best described as being some way behind Virgin Galactic, having got both a fuselage and working engines, but not yet having married them together in a test flight which is apparently coming later this year. They are, barring some catastrophe, almost certain to have a working vehicle by 2018.
So lets recap. The Ascender, Roc and Skylon don’t have a hope in hell of making it to the 2018 deadline (or even later)without some massive investment and progress from all three. The Soar and Spaceplane (seriously, Airbus, get a snappier name!) will probably be ready in 2018 or soon after it. The Lynx and Spaceship 2 will probably be ready some time before that. Pegasus, of course, already works and has something like forty successful launches under its belt.
Unfortunately, since most of these working, or soon to be working designs originate from the US, they cannot be launched abroad due to falling afoul of something called the Missile Technology Control Regime and its attendant US laws, the US Munitions List and US International Traffic in Arms Regulations. The UK Space Agency report highlights this and makes the point that the US’s first instinct is to immediately deny the issuing of an export license for these craft.
So out of these eight craft, only the Soar and the Spaceplane (Airbus!) could be used at a prospective UK spaceport (assuming, of course, that the Soar doesnt fall afoul of the same problem due to its development taking place in the US and Canada and that there isn’t a change in the law in the meantime.)
The UK could develop our own spaceplane – we’ve certainly got the technology, but the law as it currently stands is sadly lacking. More on that later.
Why does the UK hate rockets?
As mentioned earlier, the report focussing nearly exclusively on the use of spaceplanes. Now, I understand why the government is keen to use spaceplanes in terms of the possibility for reusability, the lack of dropping first stages on people’s heads and the other attendant boosts to the UK spacecraft industry (there are also other reasons which I will expand upon in the next section). I don’t understand and am quite frustrated by the exclusion of traditional rockets.
One of the big points that the full length report hammers again and again is the reduced cost of spaceplanes compared to a traditional rocket launch. Something that is conspicuously absent is an evaluation of the giant strides that SpaceX is taking in reducing the cost of getting to orbit. Indeed, in the full length report, SpaceX is mentioned only once. In fact, I’ll quote it here because it skips over a massive, massive point.
3.32 – In the medium to long term, other platforms led from the UK – notably Reaction Engines’ SABRE hybrid engine and the SKYLON single-stage to orbit spaceplane – will come to maturity, with the capability to transport larger satellites (expected to be up to 15 tonnes). This will open up cheaper access to space for most satellite deployments. It is estimated that the SKYLON project would be capable of delivering a payload of this size into LEO at about one-fiftieth of the cost of traditional expendable launch vehicles.If this proves to be the case, it will clearly change the economics of satellite launch. However, there are also plans for reusable vertical launch vehicles, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9. These, too,could substantially reduce the costs of satellite launch, with projected savings of as much as 70 per cent.
Thats it. Thats the only time that SpaceX is mentioned or referenced in any way with regards to cost savings. Now, I don’t know if it is just me being an Elon Musk fan, but I think that it is pretty incredible that in a report that goes over some of the companies at the bleeding edge of spacecraft design, that SpaceX gets only one mention and skips rapidly over a launch cost saving of over two thirds using largely what is a mature and well understood technology (ie, staged rocket propulsion) combined with innovations that appear to be very close to having the problems ironed out.
Additionally, this is a comparison of a design that has not even left the drawing board to a family of proven rockets that currently take supplies to and from the International Space Station.
Alternatively, if the UK decided to create a new rocketry program, it doesn’t even need to be a large rocket. The Norwegian company Nammo Raufoss is in the process of designing a new light-lift rocket called the North Star. While its designed to launch only a few cubesats at a time, a rocket that is not very different from it could be used to put small satellites into a polar orbit from a Scottish launch site. Norway is a country with a scant five million people, while the UK on the other hand has around sixty million. Where the hell is our rocket?
In fairness, the report does make clear that its emphasis is on spaceplanes – which I guess is kind of what you should expect from the Civil Aviation Authority – and that vertical launch rockets can be considered, but they aren’t as much of a priority given that an all new purpose built site must be created for them, while spaceplanes can use infrastructure that already exists.
In other words, a cost saving exercise (in theory – again, we’ll come to that later).
I’m rather frustrated with the government on this as it is something of an ancient engineering maxim – If you want something that is cheap, quick and good, you can only choose two. Any serious effort to reactivate a British space industry needs a large amount of money as seed funding before it becomes profitable. Attempting to do things on the cheap with a compromise may well turn out to be a false economy when compared to a purpose built site – but I guess the Americans simply get the benefit of being bankrolled by starry-eyed billionaires.
Disclaimer here: I am not a legal expert, I am just guy who reads the government report in full. I think I am right in my interpretation, but I will welcome any clarification.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of legal problems with the current idea of starting a spaceflight industry in the UK. The report does a good-ish job of getting around them, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of either modifying old legislation, adopting legislation from the United States or quickly inventing it from scratch.
In short,a large amount of problems are solved by a legal bodge whereby spaceplanes are declared as “experimental craft” while new legislation is cooked up before paying passengers get on these flights. In this way, the spaceplanes avoid being subjected to existing rigorous aircraft laws.
It also seems that nobody really knows who is responsible if a “vertical launch” (aka, Rocket) takes place. The CAA cannot regulate rockets, it only needs to be informed of a small rocket launch beforehand, presumably so it can issue a NOTAM. Similarly, it appears there is no body in the UK who certifies the safety of non-winged spacecraft (again, a wonderful euphemism for a Rocket) from being launched provided it does not actually enter space, at which point any operator becomes liable to get a license to operate it under the terms of the 1986 Outer Space Act. Again, apparently there is no body responsible for the safety regulation for the launching of space systems, or their ground testing either, provided the normal Health and Safety Executive directives are followed.
The practical upshot of all this confusion is that an entirely new body (or existing body like the Civil Aviation Authority) needs to be created to be responsible for the regulation and safety of space vehicles and their launching pretty tout suite, along with other law updates.
The Sites Themselves
Leaving aside the obvious complaints about the infamous British poor weather that would have an effect on operations (and indeed, the report devotes a considerable length to assessing the likely weather coverage over each region of the UK that each site is in), the sites are largely far from ideal, but constrained by the requirement to be both near the sea and in areas of low population density to limit casualties in the event of a catastrophic failure. From a list of 48 sites in the UK, a shortlist of 8 was created as fulfilling the criteria.
The sites being considered are RAF Lossiemouth and Leuchars, the Kinloss Barracks airport, Stornoway Airport, Campbeltown Airport (Formerly RAF Machrihanish) and Glasgow Prestwick, all in Scotland; Llanbedr Airport in Wales; and Newquay Cornwall Airport (formerly RAF St. Mawgan).
The report specifies a likely minimum required runway length of 3,000 meters for the UK Spaceport. Of the proposed airports, only one of these has a runway of the required length – all the others require varying (and expensive) extensions. For comparison, in 2012 Birmingham Airport constructed a 405m runway extension at a cost of £33 million before spending a further £9million on runway resurfacing. According to the report, Llanbedr doesnt even have a current CAA license for normal air traffic movements and would also require European Aviation Safety Agency certification as well. The option to look at airports on British Overseas Territories is also briefly mentioned and slated for further enquiry at a later date.
But the thing I find absolutely incredible is buried in this part of the report:
9.48 – While the initial 46 have been reduced to eight, there is always the possibility that a discounted site could be re-instated following a more detailed operational and safety analysis in the future. It should be reiterated that while eight possible locations have been identified in this Review, no detailed discussions have taken place with existing civil or military aerodrome or site operators to ascertain their appetite for sub-orbital operations.
In conclusion, we have a review that:
1) Considers a lot of spacecraft that either cannot (due to current US ITAR laws) or will not (due to incredibad design or lack of progress) fly from the UK before 2018;
2) Compares designs that have not even completed a successful test firing to designs that are actively in use taking material into space;
3) Exposes a large amount of either legal bodgework to make existing laws work in the run up to 2018, or exposes massive flaws where very, very important regulatory areas like spacecraft safety, launch (activity) and launch (site) safety are flapping in the breeze with no one currently responsible for them;
4) Suggests the use of a lot of airports that require significant investment in order to bring them up to scratch;
5) No actual opinion was sought from the bodies that would have to live with these craft on their airports.
I think the last point is particularly unforgivable. It is now past the middle of 2014. In less than three and a half years, an absolutely massive amount of work needs to be done both in reforming UK and European law to allow the operation of spacecraft from a spaceport site and in actually selecting a site, going through the rigmarole of planning permission, funding, building and getting people trained and up to speed.
I want to believe in a UK spaceport. I really, really do. Unfortunately, I am far from being convinced that it can happen in 2018. There is so much work to do and yet the relevant bodies are considering things that are utterly unrealistic or require so much work as to be unpalatable, simply to get to say “We have a space program!”. The UK Space Agency really needs to take a long hard look at what their options really are and move forward with a will instead of dragging their feet.
The CAA report is available here:
Image: UK Space Agency