Does Britain really need a space port?
Plus: Sky TV accounts for most of UK's 'space sector'
Analysis Everyone knows about Britain's soaraway space sector. It turns over £8bn a year – the same sort of money as the remaining automotive industry – it employs tens of thousands of people, and it's growing faster than the Chinese economy. And, famously, it has done all this without any significant government help.
Some people think that ought to change. This morning, the Reg attended an event at the Institute of Directors at which the IoD brought out its new report Space: Britain's New Infrastructure Frontier. Among other things, the document seeks to make the case for a British "spaceport", from which the various new craft being prepared by such companies as Virgin Galactic and XCOR might fly. And the very word "infrastructure" pretty much implies some sort of government help or investment.
The report is excellently researched and full of interesting facts*. For a start, it gives a much clearer picture of what the UK "space industry" actually does than most documents of its kind. Generally in such papers one will hear much about such companies as the famous Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, successful pioneer of the new small-satellite sector and nowadays owned by European space giant EADS Astrium.
Nobody, least of all us here at the Reg, has anything but praise for SSTL. It's a high-tech manufacturing, high-added-value exporter and a huge commercial success. If we all worked at companies like that, old Blighty would be an economic powerhouse indeed.
But we don't all work at companies like that. Nor, it turns out, do most of the people employed in the British "space sector". Of the 25,000 directly employed in UK space, just over 7,000 work in "upstream" businesses like SSTL, actually building and operating spacecraft. The other 17,000+ work in "downstream" space business. Downstream also accounts for nearly all the turnover (£7bn of the £8bn) and most of the rapid growth the space sector has seen.
What's "downstream" space?
The short answer is, it's Sky TV, accounting for two-thirds of the downstream jobs and turnover. BSkyB, the IoD report tells us, is "the biggest player in the UK space economy ... without BSkyB it [UK space] would be half the size, probably less."
In other words the vaunted British space sector mostly isn't a matter of proper boffins building super-advanced hardware and selling it around the world, like SSTL, parts of Logica and a few other British firms. It's primarily a matter of us buying satellites, mainly from other countries, and using them to sell multimedia content – mainly to ourselves. Most of the rest of downstream UK space is accounted for by satcomms firm Inmarsat, which does at least bring in cash from abroad, though again it is a purchaser of spacecraft not a maker of them.
So much for our vaunted "space sector", then: most people would tend to see Sky as a media company, not a space one. There's nothing wrong with Sky as a business, but it's not a viable model for restoring Britain's manufacturing and technological base.
And it certainly doesn't seem to call for a spaceport. Nonetheless the IoD is full of enthusiasm, alluding to the new "Spaceport America" now being built in New Mexico as a base for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism venture. The report says:
Many agree that Richard Branson’s private sector spaceport in New Mexico will lead to the development of many more, but not enough is being done to make the case for the next one in Britain. And it could be done at a fraction of the $200 million first-of-a-kind cost of Spaceport America.
The trouble with Spaceport America, though, is that it isn't really a space port: it cannot be used to put things into space. Virgin Galactic's "SpaceShipTwo" rocketplanes are spacecraft in the same way that a brick is an aircraft. You can throw a brick up into the air, then it will come down again. The brick can get into the sky briefly before falling back to Earth, but it can't do anything useful up there the way an actual aircraft can - and a Virgin SpaceShip gets into space in much the same way that a brick can get into the air. It's only viable purpose is joyrides for wealthy thrill-seekers, on the Virgin Galactic model.
Joyrides aren't much of a business, and they may not be a business at all. There has to be a serious risk for the whole sub-orbital "space tourism" sector that its possible wealthy client base will realise at some point that you can see a black sky from a balloon and you can experience free fall and float about weightlessly in the (much bigger) cabin of an ordinary aeroplane (that's what actual space agencies do for zero-G training and experiments, in fact).
Even if nobody cottons on to this, suborbital space tourism is plainly never going to be a big deal, and "space ports" on the Spaceport America model are basically a dead end as things stand.
To be fair, the IoD report more or less says as much:
The Mojave (California) Air and Space Port, the first facility licensed by the US FAA as a commercial spaceport, is a good model of a small airport that has successfully turned itself into a spaceport and development centre for innovative aviation and space entrepreneurs. This, more than Spaceport New Mexico, is probably the useful economic model for the UK to follow.
There's nothing wrong with an innovative aerospace research-park with attached airport, but there's no great need really for the sideline in suborbital joyrides. And once you remove the airspace requirements of the joyrides, you find that Blighty already has several facilities not dissimilar to Mojave Port - for instance Farnborough, Boscombe Down, the new drone-drome at ParcAberporth in Wales. Another one in Scotland doesn't seem like a good investment of English taxpayers' money, especially given the nowadays fairly real possibility of Scottish secession from the UK: and the alternative given, an artificial island in the Severn estuary, seems frankly bonkers.
In any case, for actual serious space endeavour as opposed to up-and-down joyrides, you need to be able to achieve orbit - and orbit is a matter of velocity more than altitude. For most space applications, it helps a lot if you can take off from a piece of ground, and ascend through a piece of atmosphere, which is already moving fast through the Earth's gravitational field, as is the case near the Equator. That's why the French, when building their spaceport, chose not to put it in France at all but in French Guiana. That's why SpaceX - the only "commercial space" firm in the world which can actually achieve orbit with serious payloads - launches from Cape Canaveral or Kwajalein, not somewhere in the high latitudes like Canada or Scotland.
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. ®
*For instance an insight into the highly opaque world of launch costs and insurance is given.