The idea behind Bristol Spaceplanes

8 February 2014

We are a small company with big ideas. Our product is the know-how and the designs for a step-by-step development sequence of spaceplanes, starting with a small demonstrator and leading to one capable of slashing the cost of access to space and leading to a new space age. Spaceflight today is expensive–it costs about £35 million ($60m) to send someone to space. This is because most launches use large and complicated components that can fly once only. This is a hangover from the pioneering days of using converted ballistic missiles.

We believe there is a straightforward and fairly obvious way to slash costs. This is to develop rocket-powered aeroplanes that can provide an ‘airline’ service to orbit-spaceplanes. These were studied seriously by about a dozen large aircraft companies in the 1960s and generally considered to be the obvious next step and just about feasible at the time, however they have never been built. Initially, this was due to Cold War pressures. But then we believe the use of throwaway launchers became an entrenched part of the culture of space agencies and major industrial players. Today, the major obstacle is mind-set. It could be said that space agencies and major players are not taking spaceplanes seriously, in spite of their promise.

The founder of Bristol Spaceplanes (BSP) is one of the very few involved in the 1960s spaceplane programme who is still active. From our analysis we have concluded that the 1960s design approach is still the most competitive, and we believe we are able to work up a strategy that would achieve the new space age sooner and at lower cost and risk than the competition.

We have had study contracts or grants from government agencies and have started to bench-test the rocket engine. Our strategy has been endorsed at senior government level and received feedback from eleven UK aerospace companies. Even so, the idea that a small company can have the best strategy for transforming spaceflight seems far too good to be true, and our main challenge is to persuade large investors and major players to start a serious dialogue. We have therefore worked up the conceptual design for our analysis to be the most competitive first orbital spaceplane, and a realistic step-by-step development programme for making it happen, starting with the small demonstrator spaceplane. The Crowdcube investment is to enable us to complete the design of this demonstrator and to carry a marketing campaign aimed at denting the mind-set enough to secure private investment to fly the demonstrator airframe, to be followed in turn by a teaming arrangement with one of the world’s top twenty aircraft manufacturers.

Because of space agency failure to reduce launch cost, several entrepreneurs (including Richard Branson) have invested heavily in ‘new space’ projects, including reusable launchers. However, none of these is following the 1960s design consensus, probably because they have no team members with direct experience of this work.