EADS Astrium's suborbital space jet has the company's long term commitment and its technological development will be sustained according to the company's deputy chief technical officer.

Following speculation that Astrium's January decision to slow space jet's development meant it was closing the project down, the company's deputy chief technical officer Hugues Laporte-Weywada spoke exclusively to Flightglobal.com about the long term plan.

Without giving a timetable he pointed to business jet and rocket engine development both having seven-year concept to certification schedules.

He also declined to identify technical milestones citing other suborbital vehicle developers' preference for secrecy. Virgin Galactic does not give technical development details and Blue Origin is working in total secrecy.

"If it was publicly funded it is required to disclose this, [but] this is privately funded," says Laporte-Weywada, adding that space jet's development slow down was short term, driven by the credit crunch and that, "the [financial] crisis has not changed the perception of the [space tourism] market. It is long term, it is a 20-30 year heavy trend market. This is why we will not give up."

The company has a €1 billion ($1.34 billion) price tag for space jet's development. Laporte-Weywada explained that that included Astrium's own estimate for certification because its leadership wanted a credible figure even if it seemed high.

Astrium space jet
©EADS Astrium

 Above: EADS Astrium's space jet reaches its apogee
The US Federal Aviation Administration's framework for suborbital tourism does not require certification but preliminary European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) work concluded last year that existing EASA rules could be applied to aircraft-like suborbital vehicles.

Laporte-Weywada endorsed EASA's approach and rejected the suggestion that European certification requirements was protectionism, ensuring US flown vehicles could not operate in EASA member states.

But Astrium will not operate the space jet, which is a working title, and expects third parties to use it. Laporte-Weywada explained that the decision not to become an operator was made because Astrium is about engineering, it is not a service company. But when space jet was announced in 2007 Astrium still got a lot of emails and phone calls from people wanting to buy tickets.

While government certification may encourage potential operators to buy space jets Laporte-Weywada admitted that to get a return on investment of a €1 billion single stage to suborbit craft could redefine what was meant by a "normal" investment cycle. Asked if leasing was an option to encourage operators instead of demanding full payment he said that the "business model had not been decided yet".

When asked why an operator might choose space jet over Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnight Two, SpaceShip Two system with its potential use as a micro satellite launcher Laporte-Weywada pointed to the lower operating costs of a single vehicle for tourism. Although he expected only an evolution of space jet would deliver its own micro satellite launching capability.

Looking beyond the credit crunch to space jet's prospects he says: "I worked on the Ariane [rocket] during some really difficult days. I do not underestimate the difficulty of [developing space jet]."

Source: Flight International