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back to article Blighty's Skylon spaceplane faces key tech test in June

A British firm seeking to build a radical spaceplane – the Skylon – able to fly to orbit from a runway takeoff without any jettisoning of fuel tanks or boosters says that it will test its main technical special sauce this year. The announcement was made at a spaceplanes conference in California last week. Roger Longstaff, …

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Reusable in theory

but I suspect that the truth is that it will need significant overhaul after each flight - bit like a highly-tuned racecar engine.

Just refuelling and taxying back out sounds unlikely to me.

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In practice takes practice

I'm sure that they must have said the same about cars once. Would (did!) need significant overhaul in a well-equipped garage between road trips.

But if it works at all, then one can work on making it more reliable.

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Re: Reusable in theory

Haven't we been here before? The US decided to build a reusable space shuttle. They got it to work, but discovered that it needed a LOT of maintenance between flights - so a space shuttle launch costs a lot more than an expendable rocket. And saving money is the whole point of making a spacecraft reusable.

I bet the expendable SpaceX rockets will be cheaper than the "reusable" Skylon.

(And yes, I know the space shuttle is only mostly reusable - the shuttle and boosters are reusable but the external tank is replaced each time. My point still stands).

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Small moves Ellie

You have to start somewhere! I remember being rather disappointed when the Shuttle was rolled out and pointed into the sky attached to three huge rockets to get a supposedly reusable space plane aloft. But then that was a start as well, we now know how to fly from space to ground in a controlled manner. All we need to do now is to fly into space as well and we're done!

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Stop

4 Things

1. Initially it will be unmanned, so the checks required are reduced compared to say the shuttle.

2. It's much smaller and other than the engines, less complex than the shuttle. e.g. no life support.

3. No parts have to be recreated to make it ready for launch.

4. It shares more in common with an airplane than a typical rocket.

Reaction engines are claiming a 2 day turnaround.

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title etc

You'd have thought exactly the same thing were true of commercial jets, but then ryanair came along.

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@Jon 37

"The US decided to build a reusable space shuttle. "

NASA needed something to keep its research centres occupied. Shuttle was the only part of the programme Nixon permitted.

"but discovered that it needed a LOT of maintenance between flights"

Hardly The budget profile virtually *guaranteed* they'd sacrifice maintainability and operations costs over up front costs from day 1. The only "discovery" might have been that bonding a ceramic with 1/3 the thermal expansion coefficient of aluminium and then giving the sandwich a 1000c temperature gradient *might* cause a bit of a problem.

"And yes, I know the space shuttle is only mostly reusable "

No. The space transportation system is mostly *refurbishable" with lots of work.

Most of what you "know" is incorrect. What you don't know is also substantial.

You might find a bit more history would be useful.

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Anonymous Coward

Shuttle

The problem with the Shuttle was that it was never really developed beyond it's original configuration. Not that it was actually a bad idea to start with.

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Alien

Pointless title, which must contain letters and/or digits.

Early jet engines - and I'm talking about those in series production, not just prototypes - had lifetimes of the order of 10 or 20 hours before needing refurbishment. Given how few "refurbishable" space planes we've had so far (there have been two prototypes: the Shuttle and Buran) I don't think that we can discount the entire concept yet merely because of being refurbishable as opposed to reusable.

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AC@09:54

"The problem with the Shuttle was that it was never really developed beyond it's original configuration."

True

" Not that it was actually a bad idea to start with"

The idea of a *reusable* (as in minimal maintenance, refuel, replenish and reload another payload then launch) is a good idea.

It's *implementation* was a *very* bad idea.

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Doomed

"If the craft itself should gain just a few per cent in fuelled-up weight during the development process, this would wipe out its entire payload margin."

As an aerospace engineer, I can say with confidence that they are fucked.

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Re: Doomed

SSTO concepts never carry much payload, the rocket equation is discouraging. Thus, any cargo would have to be high value and couched in systems we want back (like a life-support system with a person in it).

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Re: high value only

The other category will be fragile things that to boost into orbit on a rocket need big, heavy cushioning systems to handle the gees. A spaceplane doesn't have to have the same gees as a vertical takeoff rocket.

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@Muscleguy

"A spaceplane doesn't have to have the same gees as a vertical takeoff rocket."

Takeoff 'g's are a design choice. Remember the Shuttle (vertical takeoff. Rocket driven) is *designed* to expose the crew to no more than 3g in normal launch.

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@ Mark

You are almost certain to be correct (+1).

However, the harrier had the same problem - its was initially so weak it could barely VTOL/VSTOL itself on an empty tanks, never mind try it with full tanks, and full pylons (ie militarised).

Admittedly, even the last GR7 still can't VTOL with a full load, but it's way better than the initial prototypes...and few percent heavier than the prototypes (even after going with a carbon fibre wing).

They'll find a way, I'm sure. Glass half full an' all that.

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@Marky W

As an aerospace engineer you should also be able to say with confidence that statement is nonsense.

Would knowing that RE have a built in 15% margin on their dry weight help?

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Stop

Oh dear, here we go again

You can't comment on a technology when you don't understand it.

Oxygen-Hydrogen rockets are not more powerful than Oxygen-Kerosene. In fact the latter are generally preferable for their larger "get you off the ground" thrust. The former are more efficient in terms of thrust per kg. of fuel burned, that quantity known as "specific impulse". This in turn is because the product molecules, water, are lighter than those from carbon-based rocket fuels, resulting in a higher mean gas velocity at a given exhaust temperature. Note that the Shuttle required (I guess the past tense is more appropriate now) high-thrust but low efficiency solid rocket boosters to get it to the point where the various boost factors meant that the oxy-hydrogen SSME could actually lift the assembly against gravity.

I hope the "chill out" technology doesn't slow down the incoming oxygen atoms to any great degree. There is definitely going to be some energy transfer to the cooling apparatus. How do they intend to counter the drag from doing what they do to the incoming air?

Discarding "pieces of technology" actually makes sense if the technology costs less than all the extra stuff needed to make the payload carrier re-usable.

And in the end, what is the point of "coming back in one piece"? Getting to orbit is hard, getting down is a lot easier, since the atmosphere is helping. You can do it in a capsule, which ought to be the preferred method.

How about some technology that gets a big load into orbit and leaves it there?

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Anonymous Coward

@Daedalus, RE: big loads into orbit

If you just want to send material into orbit then I would have thought something like a really big magnetic linear accelerator would do the trick right peachy. Build in in somewhere like Utah where it can easily be kilometers long and if you only shoot it at night then you can take advantage of all the surplus electricity generating capacity.

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@Daedalus

"You can't comment on a technology when you don't understand it."

Excellent advice. Rarely taken in practice.

"I hope the "chill out" technology doesn't slow down the incoming oxygen atoms to any great degree."

That's *exactly* it's objective.compressors work best at about 1/3 to 1/5 the speed of sound. Cooling the air "shrinks" it and allows the compressor to only need to operate well over a *relatively* narrow air speed, rather than the full M5+.

"There is definitely going to be some energy transfer to the cooling apparatus. "

Which is used to drive the compressor fan and the Hydrogen turbo pump in the first place.

"How do they intend to counter the drag from doing what they do to the incoming air?"

By doing it to as little air as possible at any stage of the flight. The inlets close as it speeds up and the rest is bypassed around the engine. Rather like the J58 installation on the SR71 in fact.

"Discarding "pieces of technology" actually makes sense if the technology costs less than all the extra stuff needed to make the payload carrier re-usable."

And you don't mind needing a massive firing range to deal with discarded parts falling out of the sky and/or you don't design *in* reusability from day 1.

"And in the end, what is the point of "coming back in one piece"? "

Eliminating the costs of recovery and re-integration. But that only counts if you're reuseable. Keeping the tanks (*especially* if they have LH2) makes for a large but "fluffy" vehicle with *very* low mass per unit area. This (in principle) give a slow relatively low temperature descent, it's also how some of the Shuttle's internal tanks survived to the ground in 1 piece during the last Shuttle breakup.

"Getting to orbit is hard, getting down is a lot easier, since the atmosphere is helping."

You've either got that backwards or severely underestimate the re-entry problem. consider how many countries have launch vehicles (up mass) versus how many have down mass capability in *routine* use.

You can do it in a capsule, which ought to be the preferred method.

You can do it in a capsule and historically it *has* been done in a capsule.

Except for the Shuttle, which wasn't.

Shuttle is the *only* data point of the winged landing type (Except for the sole Buran landing) to have flown repeatedly. With one data point you can extrapolate *any* curve you like.

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Look to your handle Daedalus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Daedalus and it's close relative Orion which showed that there IS a way to get lots of stuff to orbit - very efficiently in fact. You launch it with atomic bombs, and it's more efficient the more you launch, with talk of ships up to 8,000,000 tons.

Or of course what you really need is a space elevator:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator which is being developed by these guys: http://spaceelevatorconference.org/default.aspx amongst others.

ttfn

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Black Helicopters

Deja vu?

Why does this sound a lot like the HOTOL (?) that appeared on Tomorrow's World (happy days), then disappeared without a trace?

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It's the same people.

Reaction Engines Limited started up because the engineers involved in the HOTOL project didn't want to see it die. Skylon is a slightly updated HOTOL, updated a bit and taken private.

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FAIL

Duh

It's the successor to HOTOL, just privately funded, try reading their website

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HOTOL reborn

Because it is. It disappeared because technical problems appeared with the engine design that needed to be fixed before it could be built.

Solutions to those were found a few years ago and also resulted in a redesign of the spaceplane too - hence Skylon.

Shame Tomorrow's world is now so dummed down that it is completely unwatchable!! - sigh.

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Lift coefficient & stall speed

I'd love to know what those two numbers are. The last time I saw a wing planform like that, it was attached to an F-104, let's hope it doesn't have a similar flight envelope.

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@My Alter Ego

Well keep in mind it's tail is at the front (twin canards) and I'm not sure if RE have ever said what the wing profile actually is, although the choice does seem limited.

Being a launch vehicle rather than a fighter compromises to improve maneuverability in a dog fight are not an issue.

They have said Skylon (unlike the Shuttle) is designed to be stable and not require active computer control

Note also that the C1 design (which this is) is being revised.

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re-reusable in theory

Mind, that used to be the case with all aircraft engines, not all that long ago.

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Fallback position

If they can't hit their weight targets, which is quite challenging for a single stage to orbit vehicle, the fallback is to go nearly to orbit with the Skylon, say 90%, and then eject the cargo with a small rocket attached. Pushing 10 tons of cargo through 800 m/s of velocity would require about 3 tons of fuel, so we are talking about a pretty small rocket. That is not as elegant as going all the way with one vehicle, but it gets the job done

If you don't have billions to spend on development, a Space Cannon can be demonstrated for about one thousandth the cost of the Skylon (15 million dollars). That would get a very small payload to orbit to demonstrate the idea works, after which you would build a larger bore gun to deliver useful size cargos. No, it is not useful for carrying people, but a lot of other things can stand 1000 g's just fine. For comparison, that is 1/6 of the acceleration of a modern artillery piece. Also a big f**king gun is just cool.

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required title

They've already done work on a cargo adaptor that they call a skylon upper stage. It's more of an inner stage really, but it ought to do the job in theory.

If they do find themselves in need of extra oomph, a better place to start would be to add disposable takeoff engines. Even with their funky pressure-adaptable expansion nozzles for efficient use at all altitudes, a runway takeoff with a rocket engine is inefficient.

A low altitude booster stage doesn't necessarily have to ruin their model, so long as it is extremely cheap and simple to install - preferably so cheap as to be trivial by airline standards and capable of being hauled around by forklift.

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Problem

To achieve orbital velocity 17,500mph (LEO, Mach 25), launching from the surface of the earth it would need to go much faster due to aerodynamic drag, say Mach 30.

At Mach 25 or 30 no material would be able to withstand the temperatures induced due to the aerodynamic drag and would destroy the craft before it go anywhere near orbit.

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Anonymous Coward

Big Guns

If your idea of a big gun worked it would have been done by now. Remember as soon as the payload leaves the gun it will be subject to aerodynamic drag. IOW it will start to slow down as soon as it leaves the muzzle. So I invite you to calculate the muzzle velocity required for your capsule to be exceeding 17,500mph when it leaves the atmosphers.

Then you need to think about control, once the capsule gets out of the atmosphere it needs control to get it into the required orbit. You can't just shoot and hit the exactly the right orbit, the atmosphere is a bit unpredictable at times.

Finally there is the matter of safety control. The projectile needs to be controllable as soon as it's launched. How are you going to achieve that. We all know the space shuttle had emergency landing sites to cope should anything go wrong, so that it wouldn't just crash on Madrid if something went wrong in the first few minutes of flight. We also know about the remote detonation capability so that the whole shooting match could be blown up by some bloke near the launch site should something go seriously wrong after launch. How are you going to achieve that should your cannon turn out to be loose?

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re: anonymous coward

"If your idea of a big gun worked it would have been done by now. "

It hasn't been done before because explosive powered guns can't get the necessary speed. The hot gas produced by setting off chemical propellant does not expand smoothly at mach 20 - reaction product molecules are too large and so for any reasonable temperature range, they move too slowly, even if individual molecules are greatly exceeding the speed of sound.

There is a way to get around this, by heating pure hydrogen gas. It's a much lighter molecule, and so for a given energy and temperature range, the gas particles move a hell of a lot faster. All you need to do is heat up a reservoir of hydrogen to very high pressures and then release it behind your projectile - and this will get you the required speed.

The technology to do this without losing too much hydrogen to the outside world is still being developed, and is untested on a large scale, although it has been used for hypersonic engine tests to get very small scale models up to ignition speeds.

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@annodomini2

"To achieve orbital velocity 17,500mph (LEO, Mach 25), launching from the surface of the earth it would need to go much faster due to aerodynamic drag, say Mach 30."

True.

"At Mach 25 or 30 no material would be able to withstand the temperatures induced due to the aerodynamic drag and would destroy the craft before it go anywhere near orbit."

I was tempted to call troll on this but I think you misunderstood the animation.

First the fact Shuttle manages the process in *reverse* should tell you that with appropriate design and materials a vehicle can (and has repeatedly) survived this regime intact.

Skylon uses atmospheric Oxygen to accelerate to cM5. During that time it's climbing *continuously* and outside air pressure is dropping like a stone. Switchover to full rocket drive happens when it's *above* the bulk of the atmosphere.

It's not actually *flying* by aerodynamic lift. It continues to climb because it's kinetic energy is increasing and the equilibrium altitude where it is balanced by the Earth's gravity field is higher. Think Newton's analogy of a cannon on a mountain. A faster cannon ball is (on an airless planet) equivalent to a higher mountain. An *accelerating* cannon ball is like a cannon mounted on a continually rising platform.

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Title

My reference was to the gun, i didn't emphasise this in the post.

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Black Helicopters

True, but....

the last person to design one got a Mossad headache...

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FAIL

So that's why rockets dont work...?

Eh?

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Happy

@annodomini2

"My reference was to the gun, i didn't emphasise this in the post."

My apologies for the suspected troll. *That* makes perfect sense.

That said IIRC the USAF at Holloman (home of the crash test dummy) did a rocket sled test that hit M5, but the last couple of M numbers were in a plastic tent filled with Helium to cut the drag. I think it was on a Discovery channel documentary. Impressive to watch but the tent was a write off afterward and I would not want to be *anywhere* near it once it started moving.

Adequate for getting a scram jet started but now you've got the *whole* atmosphere to get through without vaporizing the vehicle.

I like a big gun as much as anyone but the heating aspect is (I suspect) a bit under recognized as a problem by their supporters.

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@John Smith 19

Thanks! :)

Railguns or other equivalent high G launcher's are great for very low atmospheric bodies, e.g. the Moon.

The other benefit on the moon, in addition to virtually no atmosphere and gravity is much weaker, so orbital velocity is lower.

But with the Earth it's just not practical for SSTO.

Now NASA has been looking at concepts that involve a rail launch first stage, to achieve say Mach 1 or 2, which is perfectly feasible.

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Turn-around costs...

The way things work out, fuel costs are pretty minor, compared to the cost of building the vehicle.

Elon Musk is trying to reduce construction costs, essentially building hardware for mass production.

Skylon is aiming to reduce the per-flight hardware cost, by making the whole thing reusable.

Where Skylon might have an advantage is in how it might be able to land without reaching orbit. It's partly historical accident, launching from Florida, but the Shuttle had an awkward gap between being unable to return to KSC and being able to abort to a runway in (I think) Spain. Skylon isn't dropping bits off: it could launch from somewhere near Denver (that altitude is useful too) with abort runways across the USA.

There's a lot of details that could make a difference.

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Boffin

@Dabve Bell

"It's partly historical accident, launching from Florida, but the Shuttle had an awkward gap between being unable to return to KSC and being able to abort to a runway in (I think) Spain. "

No. The Shuttle has various abort modes. They transition into each other. there is *no* gap. The most dangerous part of the flight are the roughly 2 minutes from launch to SRB separation. It's just assumed the stack stays together until they burn out. Note that most abort modes have *never* been actually tested (return to launch site or transatlantic abort for example).

BTW the integrated health management system NASA added to the Shuttle main engines allow throttle down, instead of just shutting the engine off. This down graded large portions of flight profiles from highly risky never been tried abort modes to to abort to orbit, which has and does work.

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Boffin

"But Musk's rockets ... must throw away huge amounts of expensive technology on every flight."

Not so, according to Elon:

-- -- Wikipedia Article: Falcon 9

-- -- -- -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_9

-- -- -- -- (1/4 of the way down)

-- -- Transterrestrial Musings: SpaceX Press Conference

-- -- -- -- http://www.transterrestrial.com/?p=27574

-- -- -- -- (near the bottom of the article, before the comments)

-- -- HobbySpace: Interview with Elon Musk

-- -- -- -- http://www.hobbyspace.com/AAdmin/archive/Interviews/Systems/ElonMusk.html

-- -- -- -- (near the top of the article)

Elon envisions the first stage of the Falcon 9 being fully reusable without a substantial impact on payload mass. He further indicates that the second stage could be also be reusable, but that making it reusable would most likely incur too steep a reduction in allowable payload mass.

However, since the bulk of a rocket's material launch cost (i.e., non-fuel/non-payload cost) is in the first (ground-launch) stage -- which is intended to be reusable -- the statement "must throw away huge amounts of expensive technology" would appear to be overkill, especially if it refers to the smaller and much less-expensive second stage.

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Welcome

Nice - it's an SR-71 on steroids!

I like the black paint job but I guess it'll be a while before planes like that fly into orbit!

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Re: Nice - it's an SR-71 on steroids!

More like an Avro 730, and the UK history makes this more likely.

http://www.bing.com/search?q=Avro+730&src=IE-SearchBox&FORM=IE8SRC

http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=Avro+730&FORM=BIFD

The irony is that a one time Tory minister's claims about unmanned fighters/bombers look set to become true. Perhaps the Avro will come back to life.

We don't need no Steenkun Blackboid.

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Also looks like

Max Faget's original DC3 design for the Shuttle orbiter which would have sat on top of an even larger winged booster. They'd have weighed nearly 2000 tonnes all up and taken off and landed horizontally. The DC3 would have had 11 SSMEs on the booster and another 2 on the orbiter.

It was canned once the USAF demanded a large cross-range ability and forced NASA to adopt a delta wing design. But in sheer Gerryandersonatiude it takes some beating - this might just be it.

But hold on - a 0.5mm shell on this beast - how robust would it be to bird strikes and the like?

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Lovely concept

It would be great if it were to work. Best of luck to them I say.

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Boffin

Depends on wheather they are testing the special sauce or the *very* special sauce.

The first is the light weight pre-cooler or "Fractal plumbing" heat exchanger, manufactured using specially developed production techniques (and possibly machinery).

The *very* special sauce is the frost control technology which stops the thing freezing the water vapor in the air into solid ice within a few seconds of it being switched on.

Frost control is *the* dirty little secret of all deeply pre cooled (SABRE) or liquid air cycle (LACE) systems like the one that Andrews Aerospace (Alchemist?) were developing which *must* be handled in order for them to function.

If this test is a full size pre-cooler *and* includes frost control it is a *major* milestone which (if the airflow is *anything* like realistic in terms of temp and pressure range) AFAIK this has *never* been done by any of previous attempts to do such a system.

I'll comment on Lewis's inaccuracies later.

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FAIL

Vaporware

This has been "in development" longer than Duke Nukem Forever, and with less chance of success.

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@Gene Cash

"This has been "in development" longer than Duke Nukem Forever, and with less chance of success."

Probably on 1/10 of what DNF is spending on PR and lunches for journalists.

On a slightly more serious note it could be said that at this point they are *no* more successful than Lockmart with the X33.

IOW LM got $1.1Bn of US tax payers money to get there. Or rather to *fail* to get there.

RE have spent roughly 1/55 of that, mostly of private investment, to get here.

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You have to start somewhere...

I have to give the effort a thumbs up.

If it works, great.

If not, then I hope that there are lessons learned and the concept continues.

As the author points out... the amount of start up costs are limited because they have to prove that key critical components must work prior to the rest of the aircraft being built.

The cool thing is that if these components work and others do not, its possible to redesign or to use these components in to other projects. Kelly Johnson was a freak of nature. Probably the first person to innovate the agile process too!

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Anonymous Coward

Area rule?

Does that not apply here then?

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