All content is by Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK,
unless attributed to a different signed author.
(1) Dear Mr Dordain...
Mr Jean-Jacques Dordain
European Space Agency
8-10 rue Mario Nikis
75738 Paris Cedex 15
26 June 2011
Dear Mr Dordain,
As a reader of Raumfahrt Concret, I was interested to read your article “ESA on a solid and exciting path”, published in a supplement to the latest issue (Heft 67).
You describe 2011 as the “year of launchers”, and as “a real turning point” for European space. Please excuse me if I disagree.
It is astonishing to realise that, more than half a century after the opening of the space age, all the launch vehicles which you mention are still designed on the principle of weapons systems: every launch results in the destruction of the vehicle. This throw-away mentality has acted for many years to frustrate the development of large-scale markets for spaceflight. Thus you appear to be content that the number of Europeans flying in space is restricted to the absurdly low number of one or two per year, and that the high costs of launch are still blocking progress in potentially profitable applications in tourism, space manufacturing and energy.
Since ESA is a publicly funded organisation, I think that European taxpayers such as myself, as well as the European Space Council, have a right to expect ESA to demonstrate leadership in space. Instead, as you know, leadership in developing the launchers indispensable for a future of dynamic growth in space is coming from hard-pressed private companies in Britain.
Even in America, where progress has been hampered by decades of effort to operate the experimental and partly recyclable Shuttle as if it were an operational and fully reusable system, private companies, some with the direct support and encouragement of NASA, have put European achievements to shame. It is notable that an American company has developed in four years a capsule capable of carrying astronauts and cargo to the ISS and back to Earth, first flown last December. Meanwhile the European ATV, developed at a multiple of both the cost and the schedule, cannot be safely recovered on Earth or adapted to carry passengers without another lengthy and costly development programme. Nor has it had any beneficial impact on either the cost per tonne to orbit, or the frequency of access.
However, even a recoverable, astronaut-carrying version of the ATV-Ariane 5 system would still destroy almost all its hardware on every flight, and would be incapable of providing either the economy or the reliability needed for the higher traffic levels appropriate to future large-scale applications in tourism, space manufacturing and energy. Nor would it be competitive with the spaceplane projects currently under development in the UK.
In your article, you mention that the EU–ESA Second International Conference on Space Exploration concluded that “immediate action is needed to ensure that Europe will have a significant role in future space exploration”, and that space exploration is “a driver for innovation”.
ESA needs to ponder these statements in light of the facts that ESA is lagging behind developments, not only elsewhere in the world, but being pursued with vision and commitment by private companies in at least one of its own member states, and that the key innovation on which all else in space depends is bringing the cost of access to orbit down to reasonable levels at which new economically viable applications can be introduced.
Europe is still waiting for its “year of launchers”.
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society
[NB For more on SpaceX’s achievements and costs, see 4 May 2011 article by Elon Musk.]
(2) “From Imagination to Reality”:
News release by Mat Irvine
Britain is in a very odd situation when it comes to “space”. In earlier years, and we are going back to the 1940s, it could be seen as being in the forefront of rocket research and the exciting plans for space exploration. Even into the early 1970s, Britain was still taking a lead in rocket science and engineering, in effect leading ELDO – the European Launcher Development Organisation – with Blue Streak being the first stage of the new Europa rocket, first launched in 1964. Previously, in 1962, the Goonhilly Downs Earth Station was one of only three that pioneered trans-Atlantic telecommunications via satellite – with the orbit for communications satellites itself of course being the suggestion of notable British science writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke way back in 1945. The first “international satellite” put into orbit, again in 1962, was Ariel 1, and Britain even managed to – just – become a member of the small group of countries that launched their own satellite with their own rocket (Prospero on Black Arrow in 1971). But this was only “just” as the project had actually already been cancelled by the time the rocket stood on the launch pad in Australia, and it was only because it was already there, and would in reality be going nowhere else, that the button was pushed. The rocket successfully launched and Prospero is still in orbit. In fact, 28 October this year will mark its 40th anniversary.
But this strange situation of “well, we might just as well launch it...”, seemed to mark the beginning of the end, for it appears that, for many unconnected reasons, Britain gave up on, and pulled out of, any high profile space attempts. Instead it was content to leave it to other members of the European Space Agency – especially France, Germany and Italy – to head up areas of space activity that the UK had previously either run or had a very prominent role in. Even when it came to selecting astronauts from ESA countries to train for space missions, particularly to the International Space Station, the UK was conspicuous by its absence – seemingly taking a perverse pride in having no UK citizens amongst the many selected! In fact three NASA astronauts that we like to think of as “British”, as they were born in the UK, had to become American citizens, and fly as US astronauts.
This isn’t to say Britain wasn’t doing anything in space. It did – and still does – have a very good reputation in the design and manufacture of satellites, and, with a world-wide reputation in astronomy, input into many space science programmes. Many British rocket engineers and space scientists work for international companies alongside citizens of many other counties. However, and unfortunately, this does not seem to be of significant interest to the “general public here in the UK”, as – to use a much hyped word – it’s not deemed to be “sexy”. Rockets and astronauts are “sexy”; unmanned research satellites – however worthy – are not.
But hopefully things are changing. It may be slow, but there are signs. European companies such as Astrium have significant space capabilities in the UK. As well as its large satellite manufacturing plants it now also owns Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd which, based in Guildford, is a pioneer and world leader in the design, manufacture and operation of small satellites. Another British company, Reaction Engines, is way in advance of the rest of the world in the development of the next generation of spaceplanes, such as Skylon. On the other hand, Virgin Galactic shows that even if the UK does not actually build the hardware, British expertise and commercial leadership can come into play in the fast-growing space tourism market. At last, we now actually have a British astronaut who can remain British and fly as part of the European astronaut team!
To showcase Britain’s past achievements in space and its current and future projects and programmes, The British Interplanetary Society is hosting the country’s first “space convention” based on the Society’s own motto – From Imagination To Reality. The announcement of this event was on 12 April 2011, a significant date as it is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic “first man in space” flight. The aim of the event is to showcase what British scientists, engineers and writers have achieved over the years and look at what is now being done to further space research in the UK.
The convention is aimed at the general public – anyone who may have a passing interest in space and/or science fiction, and would like to know more. All are welcome to sit in on the lectures and/or visit the exhibition stands to discuss careers in the associated industries, or just become a member of the BIS to further space interests.
The event will be held on 17 and 18 September 2011 in the Berrill Lecture Theatre at the Milton Keynes campus of the Open University, courtesy of CEPSAR – the Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research. The programme will feature a wide range of speakers, covering a variety of topics from how space travel was seen by the vivid imagination of science fiction writers, through to the reality of today’s space projects and tomorrow’s ideas and dreams.
Four sessions over the weekend will start Saturday morning with topics on the earlier years, and what the UK was doing – including inventing the Apollo Lunar Module! The Moon and Mars are covered in the afternoon – with the emphasis these days very much on the Red Planet, and the UK-built next-generation Mars Rover. Sunday morning starts with the commercialisation of space, including space tourism; the first chance for the man – and woman – in the street to fly into space. On Sunday afternoon we look Into The Universe, the probability of life elsewhere in the Solar System, and where we are in the Universe – or rather the Universe as we think we know it. As Sir Arthur C. Clarke was fond of quoting, “The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine – it is stranger than we can imagine...”
Tickets cost just £45 for one day, or £80 for both days. The price covers morning and afternoon refreshments and includes lunch. In addition, there are evening events on Friday and Saturday which include a buffet dinner; tickets for these are £15 each. Overnight accommodation is available nearby.
For full details and to book tickets, visit the BIS website at www.bis-space.com.
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(NB: Jerry Stone adds the information that prices go up at the end of July, so people should book early!)
For further information and enquiries relating to interviews, please contact the event organisers or the BIS:
For information on CEPSAR:
Simon Kelley, Director, CEPSAR