16 May 2007
- Vehicles (None)
50th Anniversary of the Saunders-Roe SR.53
Untapped potential of rocket-powered aircraft decades late and still waiting.
by Patrick Collins
50 years ago today the prototype of the supersonic SR.53 rocket-powered interceptor aircraft made its first test flight at RAE Boscombe Downs, England. Over the following year, the two prototypes flew 42 times, including supersonically, but after an unexplained crash the project was cancelled. The planned function of high-altitude interception was fulfilled by the "Lightning" aircraft which was being developed at much the same time. Although the Lightnings were much loved by pilots, and became famous as world record-holders for high-speed climb, they could not of course leave the atmosphere as a rocket-powered vehicle could have.

If either the SR.53 or the more advanced SR.177 had been put into operation, the normal process of developing upgraded versions would have led within a few years to a version capable of sub-orbital flights - as was proposed at the time as a research vehicle. And with that, sub-orbital tourism could easily have started during the late 1960s - fully forty years ago.

In his comments to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science & Technology on February 21, Space Future's Dr. Patrick Collins showed a picture of the SR.53, and argued that sub-orbital passenger flights could cost as little as 3,000 Pounds/passenger. This prompted the Committee Chairman, Phil Willis M.P. to comment "That is the most astounding claim that you have just made", and he and Committtee Member Dr Bob Spink asked Dr Collins to send them evidence for his claim. In response to this, SFC prepared an additional Submission to the Committee explaining how a sub-orbital vehicle such as Bristol Spaceplanes’ “Ascender” could carry passengers on sub-orbital flights for such a low cost, once it had achieved maturity.

The main thrust of SFC's three submissions is that the BNSC, like space agencies around the world, as well as the Blair administration’s minister for science and innovation from 1998-2006, Lord Sainsbury, are not fulfilling their legal responsibility to help develop profitible activities in space - as was specifically criticised in 2000 in the Report on Space Policy of the Trade and Industry Committee. The least that a minister for science and innovation should do is to investigate the feasibility of such a promising new innovation - in particular, as he was specifically urged to do in that report.

Unfortunately, having served 8 years, Lord Sainsbury resigned before he would have been asked to appear before the Science and Technology Committee, and his successor, Malcolm Wicks took his place. When questioned about space tourism, he said that he does not want to travel to space himself, and was more excited about using “satellite technologies...for economic benefits". Unfortunately, the so-called economic benefits of satellites are very few, and certainly do not justify ignoring another potential new business opportunity in space. We must therefore hope that the Science and Technology Committee will add to the 2000 criticism of the Trade & Industry Committee - that the British government's space policy is knowingly preventing investment in the most promising field for space development.

As described in a recent paper in JBIS, government space agencies' refusal for several decades to date to develop the low-cost passenger space vehicles that have been feasible since the 1950s has imposed an enormous cost on the peoples of the world - in lost economic growth, in unemployment due to lack of new industries, in increasing international friction over resources - now leading to "21st century resource wars", in environmental damage, and in loss of cultural inspiration. Economic development of space offers a solution to all of these, and it is waiting on just one condition - the development of low-cost space travel - but government space agencies refuse to use any of their annual budgets of 20 billion Euro-equivalents for this purpose.

The very promising work by the FAA to encourage passenger space travel is held back only by its budget being less than 1/1,000 of Nasa's - although its work is far more economically valuable than Nasa's plans for a 50th anniversary replay of the Apollo project using expendable vehicles. As long ago as 1999 the FAA invited other countries to join it in this work. You might think it would have been swamped by governments in other countries, both in Europe and in Asia, wishing to join in. There are no prizes for guessing that it wasn't.

SFC recommended to the Select Committee that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in Britain be tasked to lead the development of passenger space travel, in view of the progress made by the FAA rather than Nasa. The Select Committee’s forthcoming report will be of great interest. If it contributes to recovering the half-century lost since the wonderful SR.53 project pointed the way to low-cost space travel, the Committee Members can be proud of their work.
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Patrick Collins 16 May 2007
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