Skylon Update: Big Bucks, Buck Rogers

During a plenary session at the International Astronautic Federation conference in Naples on Wednesday, Reaction Engines Founding Director Alan Bond said that the Skylon space plane could be commercially operational in 2022 after a development program that would cost about $14 billion. Flights of the reusable, single-stage-to-orbit vehicle would cost roughly $5 million each.

None of that is really news to anyone who has been following the program. However, what Bond said about the technical progress on the Skylon’s advanced propulsion system was intriguing, providing hope to supporters that the company might find the financial backing it needs to carry the program to completion.

During the presentation, Bond said the following [emphasis mine]:

“Skylon is progressing. We’ve gone through several design iterations and we’re currently working on what we think is the version that will get built. We’ve been doing a very great deal of work on the actual propulsion side of the vehicle. Obviously, a vehicle like Skylon, it’s the propulsion that is really the ground-breaking technology, and that has gone extremely well. During the course of this past year, we’ve actually moved to the point of, we’ve know we’ve been able to make heat exchangers, if any of you understand the way the Skylon engines operate, we cool the air in an air-breathing engine to Mach 5, thereafter we transfer to rocket propulsion effectively to go to orbit. But, the bit up to Mach 5 is the important part.

“We’ve demonstrated over a year ago that we could make those components and now we have them on test and they are demonstrating they actually perform as they would be expect to perform. That program is, I’ve got to confess, running a bit late. Anyone here who’s been mixed up in development programs know all of those issues, and how much sleep we lose over getting everything to work properly. I’m pleased to say that we’re fairly close to the end of this particular demonstration program.

“So, the indications are that, contrary to many views, single stage vehicles which look like aerospace are possible to fly to orbit and return and then a couple of days later to do the job again. I believe that we are now within months, not years, of actually proving that to the world absolutely. And so the question is, what is the world going to do about that?

Reaction Engines is open to business to talk, particularly in Europe, but also elsewhere to the United States and so on, with regard to how we’re going to push that technology forward. My view is that Skylon, and that’s only a name for a particular type of this vehicle, will change the future. It is, as far as we can see, the Buck Rogers space plane. It takes off, it goes into orbit, it does its job, it returns and then can do it again, 200 times. We have easy reason now to believe that that’s is feasible. So, we’re talking to various companies within Europe, within the United States. Silvio [Sandrone] alluded to certain legislation issues and protectionist views of our technology. I think that if we’re to make real progress, we’ve got to get over those issues. So, Skylon is making progress.

This is intriguing because the main knock against Skylon has always been its large price tag and long development schedule. But, if Reaction Engines has a Mach 5 propulsion system that actually works, that could change the calculus significantly. That’s essentially what Bond is saying here.

It will be interesting to see what develops in the future.