Skylon Project Set for Design Review Next Week

The Reaction Engines’ Skylon project — which aims to create a full reusable single-stage space plane — is set to undergo a two-day review by an international team of experts beginning on Monday, according to a memorandum the company submitted to the British Parliament.
The memorandum, which was submitted to the House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology in August, reads:

Since the [UK Space] Agency was formed the main interaction with Reaction Engines has related to the organising of a major international review of the SKYLON spaceplane to be held on 20th to 21st September. This review will host over 100 experts from around the world to assess the economic and technical aspects of the SKYLON concept. The outcome of this Review , supported by an evaluation from the European Space Agency will give the UK Government confidence that, should further support to project be given, it will be on the basis of a thorough assessment.

There are some positive signs from the response to the invitations that have gone out for the review. With regard to international bodies the response indicates a very good working relationship but this is an inheritance of the BNSC [British National Space Centre] in its most recent incarnation. It is too early to say if the additional authority of being an agency will make these interactions more effective but the signs are encouraging and we expect they will.

Where invitations have gone to bodies new to the space industry – in particularly within the UK aircraft industry – we believe the fact that they have come from an agency has carried more weight.

The SKYLON Review will be held at Harwell in part because of the recently established ESA Space Centre and planned addition of an International Space Innovation Centre. These new initiatives reinforce the UK Space Agency message that there is a new positive attitude to space within UK Government circles.

The memorandum contains some interesting information about Reaction Engines’ schedule for making Skylon operational and the role that the BNSC had in helping to fund the project:

Our work is centred on the SKYLON spaceplane that will move the cost, reliability and availability of access to space much closer to that of air travel when it becomes operational around 2020.

In recent years we have had a progressively improving relationship with the BNSC and they have made very considerable efforts to help the SKYLON project be realised. Despite the serious constraints they had on them as a result of the BNSC’s structure and lack of independent funding , money was found at the £100,000s level which we have manage to use to lever several million pounds in private equity funding. Our assessment of the BNSC in the last few years is of a team that had a vision for UK Space, something sadly lacking in earlier years, but were frustrated in realising that vision not only by the very low civil space spend in the UK (it was never a single budget) but also by the organisational constraints that meant it was difficult even to address the spend problem.

When it is fully established the UK Space Agency will, at least on paper, address the structural problems in the organisation of the Governments civil space activities…

Reaction Engines also urges that the UK government should support the newly formed UKSA with more funding:

The Committee has asked what the Agency’s priorities should be for the next five years? Our view is that it should concentrate on exploiting the opportunities that this new attitude opens. The detail of these opportunities have been outlined in the report of the Space Innovation and Growth Team (IGT) published in February 2010. Reaction Engines were part the IGT process and would strongly endorse its core conclusions that Space in the UK does have the possibility of growing to a £40 Billion per annum industry by 2030.

However to achieve this , the Government will need to use the UK Space Agency to nurture the early stages of this growth process. This will require an increase in spending. The existing space spend is focused on a very few areas while the majority of areas that require support have no funding at all. The scope for savings in the existing areas are likely to be small, so new money will be needed.

Statistics on the UK space spending and comparison with other nations have been published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS Economics Paper No3 “The Space Economy in the UK: An economic analysis of the sector and the role of policy. February 2010). They show the UK has a Civil Spend of 0.014% of GDP (in 2005); compared with average for G7 nations of 0.084%. Reaction Engines ha s independently established more recent GDP spends for some of the countries that the report considers and can confirm those values. It highlights that very considerable increases in the UK space budget , along the lines proposed by the IGT report, would take the UK from an anomalously low position spend to just well below average. If the UK wishes to embrace the report’s vision then the UK Space Agency will need to be funded at a level more consistent with other nations, and embrace a much wider range of activities.

A shout out to Clark Lindsey over at Hobby Space for finding this memo.