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Sunday, June 29, 2008


Running the word X-Prize into Hansard's search facility I was disappointed to see that no MP appears to have ever used the phrase in Parliament. However I did get some magnificent stuff from these 3 pages of evidence to the Science & Technology Committee.. It comes from Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, Dr Patrick Collins, Director of Space Future & for balance, an environmentalist.

My favourite bit is from Dr Collins who is just wonderful
To give an example about how easy it can be to make getting into space cheaper, this is a picture of the SR53, a British supersonic rocket plane which flew in Britain 50 years ago this May. There is a British company, Bristol Spaceplanes, which has a design of a passenger space plane, drawing very much on that technology, which could make suborbital flights at a cost of £3,000 a head. There is simply no difficulty at all. The technology was already there 50 years ago, and materials and so on have advanced a great deal since then.

Q506 Chairman: Do you have any evidence to support that claim? That is the most astounding claim you have just made, that you could do it for that sort of cost.

Dr Collins: This vehicle is in the RAF Museum and it flew on 15 May 1957 and flew supersonic in 1958. It was a military plane.....

This was intended as an interceptor for Russian planes. In fact missiles were much better so they did not develop a higher altitude version, but suborbital space flight is that straight forward so it could have been started as a passenger business in the 1960s. There is no doubt about that. Going from suborbital to orbital is a big step; it is from 3 or 4 March up to 26 Mach so it is a big step and requires a much bigger investment. Based on a successful business like this, it would be quite a logical and low risk investment. I am a great fan of Virgin, they are doing terrific work, but if no governments were to make any effort and it was just left to Virgin it is still going to take a long time to get to orbit, but for a tiny investment and a modern version of this for £50 million, a one-off investment, in three years you would have a prototype which would be flying, within five years it could be certified for carrying passengers, and within 10 years it would be down to £3,000 a head. Suborbital flight is a very straight forward low cost investment.

One of my frustrations, as someone who has been aware of this for a long time, is the absolute refusal of the BNSC [British National Space centre] to even comment on the subject....What it means is low cost space travel which is the secret to allowing everything to happen in space but the BNSC and the then Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, have simply refused to say anything in eight years.

I have repeatedly said that we should be funding a British X-Prize Foundation from the money we currently give to ESA. If this is too forward looking for British politicians we should right now put up the £50 million to allow these regular sub-orbital flights. While it could not itself achieve orbit the original did carry 2 rockets & a modern version would be much lighter because of modern materials. That means it is likely that it would be able to launch rockets able to carry small satellites. Beyond that it would certainly be able to carry experiments to test manufacturing in zero-G. The potential number of materials that can be mixed, produced as chemical compounds or manufactured in zero-G considerably exceed the total which can be done in a gravity field & some of them are bound to be valuable, for example crystals created without being distorted by gravity can be larger & stronger than any we can now produce.. Having the ability to launch small satellites & carry out microgravity experiments would be worth many times the £50 million investment even if it wasn't worth doing simply for Britain to have something to be proud of.

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