What a difference a generation makes when it comes to UK government policy on supporting rocket development for launching satellites - that's a generation both in time and technology. In 1985 UK industry minister Geoffrey Pattie wrote that "if the UK were to take the lead in a new [satellite] launcher...it would be a major change in government policy". He was referring to the HOTOL spaceplane project.

With cost estimates of about $6 billion in 1985 money, the single-stage to orbit reusable HOTOL was designed to send 7,000kg (15,400lb) into space, but gained little domestic or international support before its cancellation. Its troubles began with UK Ministry of Defence criticism in April 1985 that there was no justification for a UK launcher and no defence requirement for HOTOL. But the miniaturisation of all things electronic since the 1980s has led to satellites a fraction of the size of HOTOL's 7,000kg payload capacity achieving ever greater capability.

British Aerospace (BAe) Hotol reuseable spaceplane
 © Flight International

Since the 1991 Gulf war the importance of space assets has driven US government policy to seek ways of rapidly deploying spacecraft for Earth observation and telecommunications. In February 2007 the UK MoD's chief of the air staff Air Vice Marshal Chris Moran told the now defunct parliamentary science and technology committee that the US concept of Operationally Responsive Space was a capability wanted by the military. In that year the UK government decided it should consider rocket proposals and previously in 2003 a feasibility study looked at a rocket for micro satellites but was unable to get commercial backing.

Now the success of UK university micro spacecraft manufacturer spin-out Surrey Satellite Technology and the development of an air-launched manned space transport system by Virgin Galactic has raised the prospects of a commercially viable indigenous UK launcher in the near term. The value of such a national asset is not lost on developing nations such as Brazil and South Korea - which are developing their own rockets with Russian help - and China and India.

Emulating them and reviving UK rocket ambition could spearhead a fiscal stimulus package and lead to the creation of a high-technology industrial base, which as many nations have demonstrated, aerospace investment can deliver.

Source: Flight International