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Monday, 4 June, 2001, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
The future of flight
Ascender in orbit
The future of space flight might look like this
An attempt by the US space agency Nasa to launch the world's fastest plane has ended in failure. But quicker, cheaper space planes could eventually become a reality, writes BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward.

Ladies and gentlemen, the aerospace industry would like to apologise for the continued delays to all flights for orbital destinations.

Delays are due to an acute shortage of personnel and aircraft capable of reaching the high altitudes and speeds required. Passengers can transfer to government-run rocket flights to orbit, but they should be aware that a supplement of approximately $20 million will be added to the standard fare.

Using a rocket to get into space is a bit like sending your granny for an ocean cruise on a torpedo

David Ashford, Bristol Spaceplanes
The industry would like to take this opportunity to thank passengers for their patience in waiting over 40 years for a commercial flight to the edge of the atmosphere, low orbit space stations or more distant destinations.

Unforeseen cancellations of development projects and a severe shortage of development funds have prompted these severe delays. However, recent improvements in the climate of opinion could mean your space plane will be ready for boarding in the very near future.

Rocket men

Flight, more than almost any other endeavour, is the realisation of our dreams. Unaided we cannot fly, but strap us inside the right kind of machine and we soar.

But, like all dreams, it does not survive reality intact. Funding shortfalls and political wrangles can leave us locked to this rock.

And nowhere is this more true than with space flight.

Over 40 years ago many aerospace firms and government agencies had developed craft that regularly smashed the sound barrier and touched the edge of space before flying back to Earth.

X-15 experimental aircraft
The X-15 in flight
In October 1967 the X-15 experimental aircraft set an unbeaten speed record of Mach 6.7. The aircraft also set altitude records and seemed to be, literally, blazing a trail for low cost, reliable access to space.

But the demands of the race to the Moon drained other programmes of money, as well as backing from space agencies and companies that space planes were the way to go. As a result, flight into orbit became all about sitting on top of a huge rocket and hoping for the best.

Waste of space

But using a rocket to get into space is a hugely wasteful enterprise. Rockets burn vast amounts of fuel, are hard to control and don't get re-used.

"Using a rocket to get into space is a bit like sending your granny for an ocean cruise on a torpedo," said David Ashford, head of Bristol Spaceplanes and a man who has worked on low cost access to space for decades.

Mr Ashford worked at Hawker Siddeley back in the 1960s and was part of a team researching a hypersonic craft that could effectively fly to space and return for a fraction of the cost of a rocket trip.

Re-useable spaceplanes powered by high-performance jet engines have huge advantages over rockets. The engines they use to reach the edge of space have been proven to be much easier to control, maintain and refuel.

Flying high

Mr Ashford is currently looking for development money to create test versions of the Ascender, Spacecab and Spacebus planes that he and his team have designed. The first of these, the Ascender, would use conventional, but adapted, jet engines to reach altitudes of over 100 kilometres (62 miles) and spearhead space tourism.

Bristol Spaceplanes is not the only firm aiming high. About 20 companies are competing for the X-Prize which gives a cash reward to the first group to fly a privately-funded, manned craft to 100 km and back. Twice. In a fortnight.

Many of the firms competing for the prize only need a few million to prove they can do it. Mr Ashford claims he could do it for about 50 million because he would use proven jet technology. By contrast Nasa is spending 120m ($185m) just to test its hypersonic craft.

Space hotel

Other firms competing include Kistler Aerospace which is already testing its spacecraft, and Bigelow Aerospace set up by hotel-owner Robert Bigelow who wants to open a branch in space.

"The winner will be the first small company to get the money," said Mr Ashford.

Dennis Tito's flight to the space station has got people thinking more seriously than ever about space planes. The modest amount of money needed to prove it can be done could mean that soon space flight becomes as common as intercontinental flights.

After all, the distance from London to Australia is about 17,000 kilometres, but the space station is only about 400 kilometres up. Join the queue.

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See also:

03 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Nasa hypersonic jet fails
23 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Supersonic flight 'doomed'
02 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Space tourists queue up
08 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Space tourist hopes to blaze trail
01 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Nasa clips its wings
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