Europe aims for 2015 SpaceShipTwo competitor

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This story is sourced from Flight International
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The prospect of an all-European competitor to US suborbital tourism projects has become stronger with the €7.3 million ($9.68 million) funding of the Future High-Altitude High-Speed Transport (FAST) 20XX project that will focus on two concepts, one suborbital, the other a hypersonic point-to-point transport system.

With its "kick-off" meeting taking place in either April or May, depending on contractual negotiations, FAST20XX will design, develop and experimentally validate hybrid propulsion engines, other technologies and make a recommendation on safe air-launch separation from a carrier aircraft.

The hybrid propulsion would be for the suborbital vehicle, which is based on the unmanned automatic glide-and-landing Phoenix test vehicle developed by Germany's DLR aerospace centre and EADS Astrium. The vehicle would have six passengers and one pilot.

The hypersonic point-to-point transport system is the DLR space launcher systems analysis group's liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen-propelled concept vehicle called SpaceLiner.

It has two stages. The first is a large unmanned booster and the second a 50-passenger vehicle that piggies back on the first stage. The vertically launched Spaceliner would take less than 90min to fly a route from Europe to Australia. With a return flight once a day, DLR says the Spaceliner could be flown 150 times, with replacement engines needed every 25 flights.

FAST20XX is the latest in a line of at least half a dozen commercial spaceflight-related projects. European industrial and institutional interest stems from market studies that show a $700 million market by 2021 and Virgin Galactic's success in raising $40 million in ticket deposits and sales over the past three years despite there being no prospect of flights for at least another 18 months.

While EADS Astrium's space jet, unveiled at the 2007 Paris air show, is the most high-profile potential European competitor to Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo the European company's suborbital vehicle team is not involved in any EU or ESA projects despite the involvement of other parts of EADS. Astrium's space tourism programme manager Christophe Chavagnac told Flight International last October that he would only talk about spacejet once the company rolled it out.

FAST20XX follows the EU Sixth Framework Programme's 12-month, €127,000 space tourism-related Future High-Altitude Flight - an Attractive Commercial Niche? (Flacon) project. Ending in October 2007, this proposed a costed air launch demonstration. "A demonstration is possible and affordable," says Wilhelm Kordulla, who co-ordinated the Flacon project, but is handing over to ESA's Johan Steelant for FAST20XX.

Despite the demonstration hopes, FAST20XX's scope was reduced after its first application in 2007 for EU funding failed. The original proposal was for three concepts and a grant level of €7.6 million, plus an industrial contribution of €3 million. Gone is the third concept by Farnborough based-Gas Dynamics, but it is already involved in the EU's Long Term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologies projects that deal with hypersonic travel and is managed by Steelant.

The hypersonic point-to-point transport system work was also affected. "Windtunnel measurements are somehow cut, but I am confident that we will be able to achieve all major investigations," says DLR space launcher systems analysis group's leader Martin Sippel.

FAST20XX was one of 28 projects selected from 223 proposed for FP7's aeronautics and air transport second call. The second bid had a grant request of €5.5 million with a total cost of €7.9 million, but the consortium settled for €600,000 less. FAST20XX is to receive an EC grant of €5.1 million, with an industrial contribution of €2.2 million for a project total of €7.3 million. Now FAST20XX has 17 partners including universities, research organisations, small and medium-sized enterprises and EADS Astrium - specifically its Bremen site because of its involvement in DLR's automatic glide and landing test vehicle Phoenix.

Kordulla told Flight International that "non-technical issues will also be tackled that are in particular not yet dealt with in Europe, but which will require answers once suborbital flight is introduced here". Swedish Space is a FAST20XX partner and Kordulla says it is involved "so that airport issues are covered". Flacon had recommended that the European Aviation Safety Agency draw up commercial human spaceflight rules and EASA has done that, presenting the results last October.

While Kordulla is moving on he thinks that a European suborbital vehicle is nearer than most would think, giving a date of 2015, while the hypersonic point to point transport system is for him a likelihood nearer to 2075.

Europe has not had an "angel" investor such as SpaceShipOne's Microsoft founding partner Paul Allen, whose sponsorship made that historic spacecraft possible, but the continent's institutions and industries are drawing together the knowledge needed. A competitor to Virgin Galactic, Xcor Aerospace and Blue Origin's services could be ready in the next decade.