Flying High

27 Aug, 2004 | Science And TechnologyTdp

With Scaled Composites and the recently renamed Space Program powered by the da Vinci project grabbing all the headlines in the ongoing ANSARI X PRIZE (it always seems to be in capitals on their site), which looks set to reach it's climax later this year, it's easy to forget that there are in fact 20 teams registered (at the time of writing at least).

Obviously some are further along than others, with the two mentioned above almost at the point of making an attempt, but the other 18 aren't giving up. For most it seems that the ANSARI X PRIZE was a nice bonus on the way to full-scale commercial activities, rather than the eventual target.

Of the teams, the US makes up the bulk of the numbers with 12 teams entered, but there are some surprises in the rest. Romania, Israel and Argentina all have a team entered, Canada has two (including the da Vinci team) and Britain has two. The team names range from the aforementioned Space Program powered by the da Vinci project, to the more mundane ILAT, ARCA and TGV Rockets, Inc. There are those with some imagination: Vanguard Spacecraft, Rocketplane Ltd, Canadian Arrow, the bizarrely named Armadillo Aerospace and those that sound disturbingly like something out of a sci-fi novel: the Space Transport Corporation, Interorbital Systems and American Astronautics.

The two British projects, (the subtely named) Bristol Spaceplanes Ltd and (the superbly named) Starchaser Industries, while different in approach, seem to be continuing the Brits tradition for excellent engineering solutions on non-existent budgets. Bristol Spaceplanes, as the name suggests, are interested in building spaceplanes using as much proven technology as possible to (primarily) fly people to sub-orbit and orbital levels and with plans to increase the size and capability of their craft over time. Starchaser are more of a rocketry company with the dual aims of satellite launching and space tourism. They're adopting a traditional rocket-style system which seems more geared towards satellite delivery to me, with space tourism being tagged on as an afterthought.

So why this long post about them? Well, it's simple really, publicity. The other teams have all had funding problems I'm sure. Scaled Composites seem the best off, having a former Microsoft founder with deep pockets as their benefactor, the da Vinci project has recently secured some much needed funding from an online casino. I'm sure the other teams are struggling (Argentina, Israel and Romania aren't known for their vast economic reserves), but though Britain is an economically wealthy country, we don't seem to have the will, nerve or belief it takes to chuck vast sums of money into projects that won't reap instant rewards. This isn't a new phenomenon by any means, but it does need addressing I think.

We have the technical skill, we build a large number of satellites and space products in the UK, our aerospace skills are second to none (of the two companies competing in the recent Joint Strike Fighter program which had a short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) requirement one updated British Aerospace's current system as deployed on the Harrier, the other called in BAE to help design a new system. In fact the US gave up building a STOVL aircraft previously and ended up buying Harriers for the marines instead) and examples of engineering on a budget litter our history. Look at Arianespace, the largest commercial launch services company in the world, and you can see how much there is to be made in satellite launches and with a drop in price, this demand will only get higher. Go on, take a chance.

So, if you're a multi-millionaire, or you know one, get investing in these companies and you could help put Britain back at the forefront of space technology and, in the long term, make plenty of money (let's not forget these technologies should pave the way not just for space tourism, but potentially for sub-orbital flight -- London to Sydney in 90 minutes anyone?). Go on, take a chance.