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A challenge shared

A number of companies and business figures are sharing the challenge of developing commercial space flight.

Among them is XCOR Aerospace, a small company based at Mojave, California, who are building the two-seater Lynx rocketplane to go up to 62 kilometres. The Lynx uses liquid fuel engines burning liquid oxygen and kerosene and will be able to fly several times a day. For take-off, it will be towed to the end of the runway, and then the four rocket engines at the fuselage rear will power it into a rapid climb.

XCOR was formed by former members of the Rotary Rocket development team. The company have previously built and flown two other rocket-powered vehicles. Their target for the start of Lynx passenger flights is 2010.

Blue Origin and New Shepard

Meanwhile Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has invested in Blue Origin, which is testing a reusable launch vehicle, New Shepard (named after the astronaut, Alan Shepard)

New Shepard is cone-shaped, short and squat, with nine peroxide/kerosene engines clustered around the bottom, for vertical take-off and landing. It looks able to travel back down base-first, thus reducing the heat shield needs of the upper part.

Falcons and Dragon

PayPal founder Elon Musk has launched Space Exploration technologies (SpaceX) to develop new rockets for flight up into orbit, going in particular for heavy-lift vehicles.

The company have been launching their Falcon rockets from the Marshall Islands. On 28 September last year the two-stage Falcon 1 became the first privately-funded, liquid-fueled rocket to orbit. Falcon 9 will be completely reusable and capable of lifting 9500 kg into low Earth orbit. It's due for first launch from Cape Canaveral later this year.

The Falcon 9 is also designed to launch the Dragon capsule spacecraft. This is go into operation for NASA when the Space Shuttle retires in 2010. The Dragon will carry up to seven passengers plus cargo. Its nosecone has a hinged cap which opens to reveal a standard berthing mechanism to enable it to dock with the International Space Station.

NASA is taking an increasing interest in private space developments. If private companies can take over routine operations, that would free up NASA to focus on the challenges of the moon and Mars.

Hotel in space

Hotelier Robert Bigelow wants to go to the next stage of building a space hotel and has founded Bigelow Aerospace to take the plans forward.

The company will build with inflatable space modules, an idea taken on licence from NASA. The flexible outer walls are more resistant to micrometeorite impact than rigid ones. For the outer skin, Bigelow use several thickness of vectran, a material twice as strong as the kevlar used in bulletproof waistcoats.

They're planning to put their Sundancer module in orbit in 2011 and have booked a launch from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle.

Astrium and space plane

The European EADS Astrium group are also in the field. The parent EADS company was formed out of a merger of leading German, French and Spanish companies, and is headquartered at Schiphol-Rijk in the Netherlands. Airbus is one of the subsidiaries, and EADS Astrium based in Portsmouth and Stevenage another. It's the prime contractor for the manufacture of Ariane rockets and for Galileo navigation satellites.

The EADS Astrium concept is a rocketplane a one-stage craft with conventional jet engines and a methane-oxygen rocket engine. The jets would take it up to 12 km, and then the rocket would fire it on up to the 100-kilometre line. It would fly from regular airports, with test flights taking place at Tozeur in Tunisia.

The Astrium space plane will have a large wingspan and canards tail planes situated ahead of the wings. The company have produced an animation of how it would look.

The company is also promoting a project called LIFE (Lunar Infrastructure For Exploration), to build a space telescope on the far side of the Moon.

And a lunar lander concept called Mona Lisa is being put forward by a German company, OHB-System, based in Bremen.


The British company Starchaser Industries is working on two concepts for space tourism. One is a reusable space capsule called Thunderstar which will carry three people up to 157 kilometres. It will be launched by a Starchaser 5 booster, powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene.

After it has taken the capsule up towards a sub-orbital level, the booster will fall away and return to earth by parachute for re-use.

The second system being developed by Starchaser is a vertically launched 8-seat sub-orbital space plane. This is being designed to be upgradeable for orbital use.

The Starchaser group, based at Hyde in Cheshire, have developed out of a rocket programme that took shape from 1992 onwards, under the direction of Steve Bennett. Starchaser 2, launched from Otterburn, NE England, in 1996 was the largest private civilian rocket ever to be built and flown in Europe. Nova, launched from Morecambe Bay in 2001, was the largest rocket ever to take off from British soil.

In the years that have followed, Starchaser have developed a series of rocket engines. The hybrid Newton burns used reconstituted vehicle tyres in the presence of liquid oxygen. One of the company's research projects is looking at the use of other forms of waste as rocket fuel, in association with hydrogen peroxide.

The Churchill bi-liquid engines uses liquid oxygen and kerosene and will power Starchaser 5. And the Storm bi-liquid engine is being used for the company's Skybolt sounding rocket, designed to go up to 135 kilometres. Skybolt will be a big step on the way to the space tourism, as it is effectively a smaller version of the Starchaser 5 booster.

The company say that one of the challenges for manufacturers to face is the need to reduce cost. They are looking at techniques pioneered in car manufacturing, in particular the systems used by Jaguar for its all-aluminium Sports X350, where the structure is fastened by self piercing rivets and the assembly done by Kawasaki robots.

Steve Bennett has a strong interest in education, and teaches space science at Salford University, and Starchaser have developed an extensive education programme, SPACE4SCHOOLS. This includes model rocket building workshops, interactive shows. provision of educational materials, and taking one of their smaller rockets on a tour of schools.

Spacecab and Spacebus

Bristol Spaceplanes was started up in 1991 in the city of the same name by David Ashford, who has a lifetime's experience in the aerospace industry. He worked on the development of many aircraft, including the DC-8 and the DC-10, Concorde, the Skylark sounding rocket, and various naval missile systems.

He has been ahead of the game for many years. In 1986 he presented a paper to the Congress of the International Astronautical Federation on the potential economic implications of space tourism. He showed the scale of the market and argued that this would drive the development of a new type of technology with reusable launch vehicles.

'The prototype of such a spaceplane can be built with existing engines and proven materials,' he said in a 1997 paper. 'Its development cost could be recovered by substituting it for four or fewer Shuttle flights.'

In 1990 he co-wrote with Patrick Collins a book entitled Your Spaceflight Manual - How you could be a tourist in space within twenty years. On the website Space Future  can be found other pioneering papers by David Ashford.

Bristol Spaceplanes have three designs. First is the Ascender, which would take off from an ordinary airfield with its turbofan engine and then at 8 kilometres up start a rocket engine to climb steeply to the edge of space.

To follow the Ascender, the company have designed the two-stage Spacecab system. One spaceplane, the orbiter, is tucked in low on top of a second spaceplane, the booster, which starts the journey up with a combination of turbojets and rocket engines.

The third of the designs, the Spacebus, takes concepts forward to something more like an airliner, with a 50-seater orbiter being launched at 24 kilometres from a powerful carrier plane.

Voyage of the air breather

Someone else who has been continually been looking into the future for the aerospace industry is Alan Bond. He has been involved in a series of visionary designs including HOTOL (Horizontal Take-off and Landing) a British space shuttle carrying a payload of seven tonnes straight up into orbit.

HOTOL would have been powered by an air-breathing engine, the RB545, to be developed by Rolls Royce. This was a rocket engine, using liquid oxygen at high altitude, but saving on fuel load by utilising air at lower levels.

There were design problems and a lack of government enthusiasm, with funding withdrawn in 1988. Many people felt that a big opportunity had been lost, but now Alan Bond is back, with several of the key members of the HOTOL team.

They've formed Reaction Engines Ltd, based at the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire.

They've come up with a design for an unpiloted spaceplane the Skylon that would be able to take over twelve tonnes of cargo directly into orbit. It would take off from a conventional runway and come back there to land after delivery.

It would be powered by the hybrid Sabre engine, which would use the air-breathing system in the atmosphere. In air-breathing mode, air is first of all cooled and compressed, then fed in to the rocket engine to be burned with hydrogen fuel. In rocket mode, the hydrogen is burnt with liquid oxygen.

Skylon is generating considerable interest. The European Space Agency (ESA) and the UK Government have announced funding as part of a joint public private development programme.

The Science and Innovation Minister Lord Drayson is showing strong support.

'This is an example of a British company developing world beating technology with exciting consequences for the future of space,' he says. 'It is fantastic that Reaction Engines, the British National Space Centre and ESA have successfully secured this public-private partnership arrangement and I look forward to seeing how the project progresses.'

And the company are looking further ahead to an orbital base station where spacecraft could be built and maintained for flights to the Moon and Mars.

Construction of the station would be highly modular, with the outer shell made from panels, covered with a skin of aluminised Mylar.

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