For Britain’s storied but oft-embattled high-technology community there was good news last week, in another vote of confidence for Reaction Engines, the Oxfordshire engineering firm developing a radical air-breathing rocket engine that enthusiasts have billed as a “new Whittle moment” – harking back to the 1930s and Frank Whittle’s invention of the turbojet. Indeed, the SABRE project could make hypersonic flight, and airline-style trips to space, a regular affair.
For now, Reaction Engines has attracted fresh investment from long-standing partner BAE Systems, joined by Boeing and Rolls-Royce. The £26.5 million ($37 million) puts the company near the £60 million mark that will release matching funds from the UK Space Agency. Meanwhile, work continues on a facility to build a demonstration engine for testing from 2020.
SABRE promises to combine jet engine efficiency with rocket power and speed. Notably, where Frank Whittle battled British dithering and stinginess, only to be overtaken by German rivals and driven to mental breakdown, Reaction Engines carries steadily on, well-funded and with enthusiastic government support.
The irony won’t be lost on Alan Bond, whose vision of the air-breathing rocket engine goes back 30 years to his work on the British HOTOL spaceplane concept. His response to that programme’s cancellation was, of course, to found Reaction Engines.