Take a stress pill and think things over, Dave.

All strength to UK firm Reaction Engines with the news that they’re to pocket a cool €1 million from the European Space Agency to help develop an air-breathing rocket engine that could one day help fulfill the decades-old Skylon plan.






The space plane Skylon which is designed to take off and land on a runway like a conventional jet would according to React’s managing director Alan Bond, achieve the as yet impossible dream of transforming the economics of space travel making it affordable for fee-paying citizenry with a yen to boldly go.


But there are a few aspects of space travel that the wannabe cosmic cognoscenti would be wise to consider according to a report posted on React’s very own website. Called Considerations for Passenger Transport by Advanced Spaceplanes, the advent of the reusable tourist spaceship to replace traditional throw-away rockets raises a not inconsiderable number of issues.


Take for instance, the small issue of the space environment being overwhelmingly hostile to life.


“Add confinement and isolation in a fragile habitat – whether a space transport vehicle like Skylon, a space station, or a space hotel – a vulnerable life support system, and the remoteness of help and rescue, and you have the ultimate tourist challenge,” the report points out.


It’s true, spend any significant period of time in this environment and you even start losing bone and muscle mass, your cardiovascular system starts to “decondition”, you develop space sickness that may last several days, and you are exposed to a radiation hazard orders of magnitude greater than on Earth. And don’t forget the psychological and sociological problems; you won’t be able to suddenly decide you’ve had enough, and go home.


Even so there are plenty of fun ways to spend your weightless space sojourn.


The report points out that darts could be a pretty popular game in space, and hilarious if the dart thrower is not secured as throwing initiates rotations around the body’s centre of gravity. Board games can be played too provided pieces are securely anchored …that could even stop Grandpa cheating at space chess.


Then there is always reading, writing, or the most popular pastime of all – just looking out of the window.


If indeed there are any windows…


Psychological factors will have to be taken into account here as few people like being confined in a small, probably windowless space, over which they have no control so views of the outside world may well have to be supplied by TV monitors.


The first space tourists will need to be a hardy, brave, and carefully selected

group of people who are able to withstand the psychological, emotional as well as physical challenges of seeing Earth from low Earth orbit and the blackness of space, in a micro-gravity environment.


For more on air-breathing technology and what it could mean for the future of spaceflight, read New Scientist magazine.


See React Engine’s Gallery for more Skylon images.




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3 Responses to Take a stress pill and think things over, Dave.

  1. alloycowboy April 16, 2009 at 6:40 am #

    I still don’t understand how an air breathing engines are going to be an asset for achieving orbit considering how little time a rocket actually spends in the atmosphere. Will the weight savings of using less oxidizer be significant enough to offset the additional mass of the air breathing rocket engine technology? If I was an investor I would want someone to answer that question first before handing over the cash.

  2. Aimee Turner April 16, 2009 at 2:58 pm #

    Actually, it is rocket science…..Mark Hempsell, future programmes director at Reaction Engines tells me that this is the crucial question in the use of air-breathing engines on single stage launch systems – the air-breathing system must either provide a very large component of the 9.4 m/sec equivalent velocity needed to reach orbit, or it must be very light.
    To get a large fraction of the total needs supersonic combustion as envisaged in the scramjet powered X-30 programme and at the moment engines that can accelerate to Mach number in the high teens do not seem practical.
    The Sabre engine uses the other approach and although restricted to a maximum speed Mach 5.5 and an altitude of 26 km (a fifth of the total required) it has a very high thrust to weight ratio so the oxidiser saved does indeed offset the extra mass required to make the rocket engine consume air.
    It means the mass fraction required to reach orbit improves from the 0.13 needed for a pure rocket vehicle to much more achievable 0.24. That means almost twice the mass is available to engineer the vehicle even if we do have to include some air-breathing kit
    One of the consequences of making the Sabre engine light is that, while it is a very good pure rocket, it is not actually a very efficient air breather. One of the problems in previous concepts is that the designs tried to make them better air breathers which added to the weight and lost the overall balance that allows the vehicle to reach orbit.
    You can find details of these arguments in A Comparison of Propulsion Concepts for SSTO Reuseable Launchers by Richard Varvill and Alan Bond Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS),Volume 56, pp. 108-117, 2003
    This paper and a spreadsheet with the Skylon nominal trajectory can be downloaded from the Reaction Engines website

    Job done ….

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