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Once, space launches were the preserve of national governments, as the USA and USSR tussled over who had the biggest rockets. Even Britain got in on the act, with the Black Arrow rocket, launched from Australia, and placing a single satellite into orbit.
Black Arrow was canned for the same reason a lot of space ventures fail – costs. In 1966, NASA received some 4.41 per cent of the US federal budget, but in 2017 its share was only 0.47 per cent, and it hasn’t been over 1 per cent since 1993. This reluctance on the part of governments to fund space exploration has seen collaboration between countries that led to the International Space Station, and the rise of the private space launch company.
There are some big players in this field, headed by billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, while the Russian Space Agency is quite happy to exchange tens of millions of dollars for a trip into orbit. These ventures, with their camera-pleasing technology, tend to hog the limelight, but there’s a lot more to the commercial space industry, and figures from Bryce Space and Technology show that, in 2017, $2.5 billion was invested in commercial space start-ups by venture capital firms. There’s also a huge market for the data gathered by spacecraft, particularly those looking down on the Earth.
As plans for spaceports are put forward all over the world, spaceplanes – reusable vehicles that can take off and land like a regular airplane, but also operate in the airless zone at the top of our atmosphere – are a popular idea. Far from flying out for a quick jaunt around the Moon while sipping an agreeable pinot noir served by a handsome steward, these early tourism flights are likely to be suborbital, not reaching high enough to enter orbit, but going much, much higher than any commercial aircraft and experiencing weightlessness for a few minutes at the top of their curving flightpath.
Space tourism company Starchaser Industries has a different plan, however. It is working towards the launch of a reusable rocket ship with space for three passengers. “We have a rocket called Nova 2. It’s a 12-metre rocket with a one-person capsule on the end,” says Starchaser CEO Steve Bennett. “We’ve done some manned tests with the capsule – we threw it out the back of a plane at quite a high altitude – and the person on board deployed a steerable parachute and brought the capsule back down safely. We’ve done that a few times, and the next stage is to launch the capsule on a rocket.” Bennett has previous experience in this area, as Starchaser holds the record for the biggest successful rocket launch over the UK mainland.
“We’re going to launch Nova 2 with a crash test dummy on board, not a real human,” Bennett continues, “but if that works then we’re very close to actually launching people.”
This isn’t going to happen in the skies over Britain, though. “We have a site in New Mexico where they’ve built the spaceport,” says Bennett, referring to Spaceport America in the United
States. “We’ve got 20 acres of land and will build a facility there for assembling and servicing our rockets. The idea is to launch all the way to space from there.”
Spaceport America also houses the spaceplanes of Virgin Galactic, whose SpaceShipTwo is carried to high altitudes by its White Knight Two launch vehicle before igniting its rocket engine to climb into the upper atmosphere for a suborbital flight. Following the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo,
VSS Enterprise, in 2014, its successor, VSS Unity, is currently undergoing flight testing.
Elsewhere in America, the political landscape is shifting in favour of commercial spaceflight.
“If space launch vehicles were being launched routinely, the cost of access to space would come right down”
President Trump, speaking at the beginning of March, praised SpaceX and Elon Musk for the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, noting that: "They said it cost $80 million. If the government did it, the same thing would have cost probably 40 or 50-times that amount of money."
Another billionaire with his sights set on the stars is Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. His company, Blue Origin, favours a rocket-based capsule launch rather than a spaceplane, and crewed tests of the New Shepard 3 vehicle are expected later this year. The company has its own spaceport, the Corn Ranch in western Texas, operational since 2006.
You don’t have to be a billionaire to consider launching tourists into space, however, as much it may help. Starchaser’s Bennett was once a lab technician who built rockets in his spare time, while Reaction Engines, a company founded in 1989 by three former Rolls Royce rocket engineers, is working on hypersonic passenger aircraft as well as its own space tourism project – the Skylon spacecraft and SABRE engine. Developed from the HOTOL – a cancelled 1980s spaceplane design – and the RB545 engine concept, Reaction Engines’ single-stage hybrid jet/rocket engine technology could carry 24 passengers to orbit, or 11 tonnes of
“You could travel from London to Sydney in 45 minutes if you did it as a suborbital flight” Steve Bennet
cargo to the International Space Station, 45 per cent more than the ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle.
In Britain, the Space Industry Act 2018 received royal assent in March and paves the way for launches into space from UK soil as well as modernising UK law to keep up with the rapid commercialisation of the space industry, which averaged a 6.5 per cent growth rate over the last decade and employs 35,000 people across the country.
The location of a British spaceport is yet to be confirmed, however, with the government supporting the creation of one at a ‘suitable’ location, but failing to suggest where that location might be.
Britain isn’t brilliantly placed for rocket launches – they tend to be carried out near the equator, as this gives you an extra speed boost thanks to the spin of the Earth, and from an easterly coast to fly over the sea with the rotation of the planet. The position of the Kennedy Space Center on America’s east coast means rockets fly out over the ocean. A rocket launch site in Essex would send its payloads over Europe, with potentially disastrous consequences in the event of a crash.
A British spaceport is more likely to support spaceplanes than rockets, but launches are not the only way a private company can get in on the space tourism action. The need for deep-space tracking and communications will grow as the number of launches increases, and while at the moment this is carried out by NASA’s Deep Space Network and the
European Space Agency, the private sector has now got a foot in the door.
Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station in Cornwall got its first dish in 1962 to link with communications satellite Telstar. This grew to over 60 dishes, and it was once the world’s largest satellite Earth station. Thanks to an £8.4 million investment, Goonhilly is to be upgraded to become the world’s first commercial deep-space communications site, and will start by tracking the ESA’s Mars Express, which has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2003.
And it’s not just Cornwall that’s seeing investment in commercial space science. Next to the National Space Centre in Leicester, a Space Park is being built with £12.87 million of government funding to combine Leicester University teaching and research with commercial propositions, aiming to develop cutting-edge satellite technology, and analyse the data the satellites send back.
“We expect to have people like Airbus and Lockheed in there,” says Professor Martin Barstow, professor of astrophysics and space science at the University of Leicester and director of the Leicester
Institute of Space and Earth Observation. “What we’re doing is engaging with larger companies, and a lot of small companies, about what their needs are, and co-designing the facilities with them.
“We won’t be launching from Leicester, it’s not well located,” he continues, “but we expect the park to be producing payloads, medium-sized satellites built in large numbers to service the new demands for Earth observation data, and for it to supply the pipeline for any new launch services that are located in the UK, as well as further afield. Our Earth observation expertise in particular is fundamental to understanding where the growth opportunities are around applications of space data, which is predicted to be the largest potential growth market from space in this country.”
Space data is exactly what the Goonhilly project is hoping to capitalise on too, and Barstow explains that companies investing in such schemes may not be traditional ‘space companies’. “Many companies might want access to data, such as agricultural technology companies using Earth observation data,” he says. “Some of it may be around what we call situational awareness – monitoring of disasters or undesirable things like fires, particularly in tracts of pristine forest, or active deforestation by people. You can use space data to improve the way people deal with these things.”
In this way, private space launches and data gathering are building on the foundations laid by national governments over the last 70 years. There’s still an enormous role for state-sponsored launches, however; they literally help get things off the ground. “Getting stuff into space is very expensive,” says Starchaser’s Bennett. “If space launch vehicles were being launched routinely – daily – the cost of access to space would come right down. Space tourism is going to help drive the costs down because there are a lot of people who’d like to go. So with a mass market, the price would really come down and space would really open up.”
Barstow agrees. “Governments have an important role [in space exploration] because sometimes things are very high risk, at a level that often private enterprises can’t really deal with,” he says. “Everybody talks about people like Elon Musk, and
“Governments have an important role [in space exploration] because sometimes things are very high risk”
Prof Martin Barstow
others who are doing great work in the US. Those private companies wouldn’t have been able to do that without an awful lot of government contracts along the way to get them running. And the very deliberate policy within NASA to put the contracts out to private companies instead of building in-house in a way that de-risks the process for the company has been extremely successful. I hope we would do something similar in the UK.”
Bennett anticipates one more advantage to a newly privatised space future: “It’s going to transform the way we live on Earth,” he says. “You could travel from London to Sydney in 45 minutes if you did it as a suborbital flight. Once you get into space, you’re halfway to anywhere – the Moon is full of resources, the Sun is brighter in space so solar panels become more efficient. If you could set up solar panels in space and beam the energy back to Earth that would be a very green way of generating electricity.”
Whether we end up with banks of orbiting solar panels or not, private spaceflight is here to stay, and while space tourism may look like a scheme to separate rich people from their money, it plays an important role in getting other things, such as Earth observation satellites or those solar arrays, off the ground… and it could change our lives significantly.
Starchaser CEO Steve Bennett with the Nova 2 capsule that can carry a person to the edge of space on a rocket
Starchaser’s Nova 1 rocket taking off. It still holds the UK record for the biggest successful rocket launch ever fired from the British mainland
LAUNCH MeTHOD SpaceShipTwo is borne aloft by White Knight Two, a jetpowered cargo plane, until it reaches 15km (9.3 miles) high, when its rocket motor ignites, pushing it to the edge of space. PASSeNGerSWith dimensions and looks similar to those of a private business jet, the Airbus spaceplane only fits four passengers and a pilot. LAUNCH MeTHOD equipped with both jets and rockets, the spaceplane can take off normally and fly to an altitude of 12km (7.5 miles) before igniting its boosters and rising to 100km (62 miles). PASSeNGerSSpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two crew members. each seat costs $250,000, and there’s no firm idea of when they’ll start. Passengers will feel weightless for about five minutes. SPACeSHIPTWOVirgin Galactic AIrBUS DeFeNCe AND SPACe SPACePLANe Airbus Defence and Space LANDINGAfter reaching maximum altitude, SpaceShipTwo raises its wings up and glides, using the atmosphere to slow itself. It will take around 25 minutes to return to base. eNGINe rocketMotorTwo is a hybrid engine, meaning it uses both solid and liquid rocket fuels. The liquid fuel is vapourised and reacts with the solid propellent to produce thrust. eNGINeA methane-oxygen rocket engine is used for the final push to space, while standard jet engines take the ship to 12km (7.5 miles). This phase can last up to 45 minutes. LANDINGWith conventional jet engines on board, the spaceplane doesn’t need to glide – it can decelerate using the atmosphere then fly normally to any landing strip.
Spaceport America, in the Jornada del Muerto desert, is the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport
Virgin’sSpaceShipTwo its rocket ignitesengine and supersonic goesduring testing
After separation from the propulsion module, Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule descends into the west Texas desert
Space Park Leicester is the UK's first national space park
Sierra Nevada lands after Corporation’s free flight Dream Chasertests in 2017