back to article Does Britain really need a space port?

Everyone knows about Britain's soaraway space sector. It turns over £8bn a year – the same sort of money as the remaining automotive industry – it employs tens of thousands of people, and it's growing faster than the Chinese economy. And, famously, it has done all this without any significant government help. Some people think …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "...the same sort of money as the remaining automotive industry..."

    We make more cars now than we have ever done.

    1. jonathanb Silver badge

      Re: Err...

      and we now export more cars than we import. Car manufacturing is actually one of the best performing bits of our economy.

    2. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: Err...

      Apples and Oranges.

      True, Britain is producing more "assembled units" than ever. It is _NOT_ something to be proud of.

      However, once upon a time, the money from manufacturing was being spread wide around a large set of other industries from big smelters to small shops running in a single warehouse making door handles and most of that was in Britain. This "food chain" had a considerable impact on the overall GDP.

      That is no longer the case. Current British car manufacturing is little besides assembly. Most of the components are built elsewhere - Germany, Spain, Portugal, Eastern Europe and Far East. The British part in it is to avoid the import duties and excise which most Eu countries still have on out-of-EU car imports. There is no food chain. It is only a "top" - the rest is elsewhere.

      So the correct name should be "automotive assembly" industry, not "automotive industry". In any case, while the "size" of the car industry may look impressive on paper its impact on GDP is actually disproportionally small.

      In any case, for the overall "good of the economy" it would have been better if Britain had none of the current assembly plants and let's say at least 10% of the parts manufacturing Germany (through the likes of Bosch) has nowdays. That is where all the development (and most of the margins) go and that creates a much wider and more "even" positive impact on the economy.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Err... Automotive Industry

        Err:: I think you'll find there's quite a bit of that food chain still left actually. And R&D, high value stuff.

        And whilst we're on the subject (and totally off topic!) - Lewis has gotten his numbers wrong in the second sentence. I'm no expert, or economist, but an "8bn auto industry" just felt wrong to me, so I did a quick mental estimate and yep that confirmed it, so then I googled it and I think it just highlights a bit of sloppy googling by Mr Page: The UK auto sector makes about 8-10bn GBP pa added value/profit whatever you call it, but does more like >50bn in turnover.

        Other than that, I thought an interesting article that I mainly agreed with (unlike all of LPs writings).

        And no I don't work for BAeS, or the auto sector. But I do work in a world leading british high tech engineering/manufacturing outfit that employs a lot of people in the UK (and worldwide) and makes a hill of money.

  2. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Kiss of death

    > without any significant government help. ... Some people think that ought to change

    Possibly the worst thing that could happen to the UK space industry (and by that I don't mean satellite TV) is government involvement. If they want to help, they can promote space science in education, make permits, planning and finance easier to obtain but otherwise STAY OUT OF THE WAY.

    The UK has an unhappy history with space exploration - which was all government sponsored and fell prey to the whims of bean-counters far from the action. If there's to be any continued success or growth of the UK industry, it should learn from the lessons of the 60's and keep government interference at arms length.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Kiss of death

      Actually, UK space industry has more to blame our politicians trusting the US to honour their promises than bean counters - read up on the Miles M.52 and how we ditched all of our papers only for the US to say "Oh, we have no research. Thanks for yours", which was a blatent lie because they had all of the groundwork from Von Braun! That put the UK behind in supersonic research by 10 years, we would have had the lightning aircraft a full decade earlier had we not destroyed our papers.

      There is also the famous title of being the only country to develop a fully working satellite launch technology only to scrap the project. We gave that technology away too. Guess what it is today? It ended up in the ariane, helping to fix the problems the French had with developing their own launch technology.

      And in fact the Concorde was also messed with by the Americans who wanted to stop the export of the planes, causing a huge dent to the UK economy (over £800million in 1977 money) and actually acting as one of the driving factors behind our having to go cap in hand to the IMF in the 70's.

      Stop blaming bean counters and start blaming short sighted politicians who believe the words of other nations.

    2. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Kiss of death

      Sorry, Lewis is right on this one. You need a government or governments to help fund this.

      As he said, true R&D like the Skylon would require lots of up front capital and will have a long tail to profitability. However its the side products and other technical advances that would likely also help reduce the payback. Unfortunately, from a private investment firm... too much risk. Easier to sponsor the next Facebook or something. Better RoI.

      But he is wrong on there not being a need for a runway.

      Logistics can be a bitch. You want these ports to be far away from population centers as possible since accidents can happen and a couple of tonnes of burning space craft falling on a city... not good. Unless of course you're an ambulance chasing lawyer....

      So either you build out a rail spur or you fly in your major supplies on transport aircraft.

  3. HFoster

    Ken MacLeod's wet dream

    Use Alexandra Palace as a London terminal, reanimate the defunct ship building industry in western Scotland and Ireland as a manufacturing heartland for the space industry, and somebody start working on laser launchers, stat!

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Ken MacLeod's wet dream

      The gripping hand of the problem is, don't you need mucho fusion power for this kind of launcher?

      1. HFoster

        Re: Ken MacLeod's wet dream

        Not as far as I know. Laser launchers rely on powerful lasers (which exist), high density steam propulsion (which exists, and Britain pioneered, albeit differently), and super-light, yet super strong materials to build the vehicle with (some exist already).

        It's a more tractable problem than the space elevator, IMO.

  4. MH Media

    Of *course* we do, and there's only man for the job..

    I'm, talking about Boris Johnson of course!

    After all, this guy has managed to erect (can I say that?) a cablecar across the Thames before you could say "plannngpermission", and is well on his way to building an airport. What better way to compliment this aspiring Space Cadet other than by asking him to build a structure that will propel Britain to the Moon, or even Uranus. Or Cameron's.

    Screw the recession - that's for Johnny Foreigner and His Euro-buddies! Let's put the Great back in Britain!

    1. Anonymous C0ward


      Why the Severn estuary? Why not add a spacey bit to the proposed Boris Island airport?

      1. tangent

        Re: Yup

        The IoD report rules that out. They say the South East has too much air traffic and is too congested.

  5. Frederic Bloggs

    And then there is the weather

    One of the things that stops rocket launching is not being able to see the blasted thing on the pad / runway. The weather is just so much less cloudy/foggy/windy/crap in the desert. This isn't going to change here in the UK anytime soon. With or without the government declaring a drought.

    1. jai

      Re: And then there is the weather

      So we build a space elevator and we don't need to launch, we just take the people and cargo up out of the atmosphere were the GB Space Platform is in orbit, and from there build and launch our craft.

      I'm mean, c'mon! we built the Spitfires and won the Battle of Britain. We should be able to build a damn space elevator by now ffs!!!

      1. Lee Dowling Silver badge

        Re: And then there is the weather

        Spitfires were made of balsa wood.

        I'd like to see you make a space elevator out of that.

        1. JimC Silver badge

          Re: Spitfires were made of balsa wood

          Err no. They weren't.

          You may be thinking of the deHavilland Mosquito, but even that was rather more sophisticated construction (in many ways a forrunner of the sandwich construction of the lunar module) than you imply.

      2. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

        Re: And then there is the weather

        Great jai, build a space elevator!

        Now, tell me, which site in equatorial Britain were you thinking of using?

        1. Danny 14 Silver badge

          Re: And then there is the weather

          ascension ?

          1. Matthew 3

            Re: Ascension

            You've got to admit that Ascension is a great name for a place to put the space elevator.

            In fifty years time people would think that the place was named after the technology.

    2. Spikehead

      Re: And then there is the weather

      You design and build a decent enough vehicle, then weather will not stop a launch. I have only heard on one launch from Baikonur scubbed due to adverse weather conditions, and that was due to high winds. Cloud, rain, snow they'll launch whatever the weather. and that was a manned launch!

  6. John 110


    Maybe you wouldn't need to go into orbit if you can provide fast sub-orbital flights from UK to the real spaceports near the equator.

    If I was Branson, I'd have one eye on that (and the other on my Arthur Clarke novel)....

  7. NomNomNom

    Travelling to space is a waste of time. If space was full of rubber or fish I could see the point but there's nothing in space worth getting. That's why it's called space, whoever came up with the name did a very good job.

    When the Americans went to the moon during the 60s all they bought back were some rocks, probably as a last thought, like if I go to the shops and can't find anything I want, I make sure to at least buy *something*, anything so it isn't a complete waste of time.

    Then there is the "International Space Station" they built which despite the profound sounding name, is basically just a big room floating in space. Sometimes people visit the floating space room, then they come home.

    Seriously a waste of time. Nothing any good came of going into space. Sure people will point at technologies and claim it was SPACE that did it, but no it was people who invented them and they could have done that on Earth. Lock 1000 scientists in any room for 10 years and they will come up with stuff. the room doesn't need to be in space.

    Then they send robots to drive over other planets. What do they find? More rocks. Different colored rocks. They can't even bring those rocks back though because they forgot to give the robot arms.

    The only point of space I can think of is as extra storage to put stuff, like my friend Denny was moving out last weekend and his parents had too much stuff to fit in the removal van because of all the stuff they had bought from Ikea. More and more stuff is being made and bought and a lot of it doesn't ever go away. So one day the Earth will be so full of sofas and tables and chairs that people will be cramped and at that point there is a real purpose for space. Not today though.

    1. Filippo

      Space exploration has more than paid for itself with comms satellites and GPS alone. We're wasting time and money on lots of things. Space just isn't one of them.

      1. NomNomNom

        Satellites are not space things, they are really high up in the SKY.



    2. ScottAS2

      Two Arthur C. Clarke quotes for the price of one

      "We cannot predict the new forces, powers, and discoveries that will be disclosed to us when we reach the other planets and set up new laboratories in space. They are as much beyond our vision today as fire or electricity would be beyond the imagination of a fish."

      "If man survives for as long as the least successful of the dinosaurs - those creatures whom we often deride as nature's failures - then we may be certain of this: for all but a vanishingly brief instant near the dawn of history, the word 'ship' will mean - 'spaceship.'"

      1. Graham Marsden
        Thumb Up

        Or a Douglas Adams quote:

        "Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans."

    3. Local Group

      RE: NomNomNom

      ""International Space Station" they built which despite the profound sounding name, is basically just a big room floating in space."

      Your commentary on Space coincided exactly with my thoughts, with the exception of the "big room floating in space. I, too, see a big room floating in space, but my big room is filled to the rafters with missiles of all sizes and shapes and warheads.

      With the missile shield contracting around Russia, skuttlebutt is the Russian have rented a room in the Chinese Space Station to counter the negative impact of the US/NATO anti-ballistic missile system and the Chinese are helping them unload crates of rockets right now.

    4. LinkOfHyrule

      RE: Travelling to space is a waste of time.

      "If space was full of rubber or fish I could see the point"

      What, kind of a like a fetish club come fishmongers? That'd be awesome - zero-g rubber orgy and a fish supper - count me in!

    5. Fibbles

      Whenever somebody asks why we should bother figuring out how to get into space and to other worlds I just mention the dinosaurs. We could focus all our time and resources on solving the problems we have here on earth but when that asteroid hits we'll still be just as fucked.

      ...I wonder if all the accounts that upvote nomnomnom miraculously share the same ip address?

      1. hplasm Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re:the same ip address?

        Or the same IQ:?

      2. The Original Cactus
        Thumb Up

        RE "...I wonder if all the accounts that upvote nomnomnom miraculously share the same ip address?"

        No, we just thought the joke was amusing.

    6. jubtastic1


      Top trolling sir, +1 would read another.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So by that logic......

    .....I work in the Construction industry because I bought - and continue to live in - a house.

  9. Mage Silver badge

    It's primarily a matter of us buying satellites?

    "It's primarily a matter of us buying satellites, mainly from other countries, and using them to sell multimedia content – mainly to ourselves."

    BskyB/Sky or Freesat don't buy ANY satellites. They rent bandwidth from Eutelsat and SES Astra.

    Pay Satellite TV isn't really to do with Space. Ducts are a really important because Virgin Media/ Cable-TV uses them. But unlike Sky, Virgin Cable actually has significant infrastructure in terms of cable and fibre. Also Virgin own the set-boxes and Modems. Sky Boxes are the customer's property.

    So it's really 1Billion, not 8 Billion.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Slightly OT

    Isn't the atmosphere deeper at the equator? Presumably the extra shove from the "Eastern push" more than compensates for the extra fuel spent wading through it?

    1. Richard Ball

      Re: Slightly OT

      Might be. Though probably not as significant as the 'eastern push' as you put it.

      What I'd be more worried about is the way that Skylon's trajectory got steeper as it climbed, not flatter. Whoever made the film doesn't know what an orbit is.

      1. jphb

        Re: Slightly OT

        Skylon gets as much speed as it can whilst still in the atmosphere to take advantage of "free" atmospheric fuel oxidant and then goes up to clear the resistance of the reminder of the atmosphere. The animation shows the early part of the climb to orbit which would be nearly vertical just like the climb to orbit of a conventional rocket.

        Incidentally I am puzzled by one aspect of the animation. Skylon is shown travelling east-to-west over Capri, Southern Italy and Sicily. I thought west-to-east orbits were energetically preferable.

  11. Mage Silver badge

    South America

    Even the Russians are using the "European" Space port in French Guiana. Presumably that's where the UK should put a launch pad if it's needed.

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: South America

      No, the missed point about a usefull sub-orbital flight (as opposed to geostationary satellite launch) is that it goes from somewhere people are, to somewhere people want to be.

      I can see flights from, say, UK to Australia (and vice-versa) in 2-3 hours being very popular if the cost was vaguely tolerable.

    2. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      Re: South America

      "Even the Russians are using the "European" Space port "

      Well actually I think that the Europeans are using the European space port, just that they are buying Russian rockets to launch from there. The Russians are very much interested in launching rockets from Russia, and hence are starting to build their own launch facilities in Russia (as opposed to renting one in Kazakhstan).

  12. Colin Brett


    " ... but in general it's safe to say that if the human race starts to build spaceports that are actually ports - termini through which serious amounts of people and payload move - in the near future, they are likely to be near the Equator, not in Britain."

    Maybe that's why China is so interested in investing in Africa:

    Maybe the UK space sector (the £1Bn part, not Sky) should be investigating development in Commonwealth countries? They don't have to be in Africa, either. Jamaica, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago aren't that far from French Guyana. Granted these countries aren't massive in terms of area, so huge runways for Skylons to use might be a problem.

    Or am I missing something?


    Go icon because we need "to boldly go" (or "go boldly") and get the human race off this rock.

    1. Andrew Newstead

      Re: Africa

      What about Ascension Island? Close to the equator (closer than Kennedy) and already has a military airport runway capable of handling big aircraft (Vulcans and Victors during the Falklands war) and has NASA and ESA tracking facilities. And still British controlled, sounds good to me.

    2. Anonymous C0ward

      Serious amounts of people and payload

      And where exactly would they be going to- do they know something we don't? (Pic related)

  13. Chad H.

    Everyone knows about Britain's soaraway space sector.

    Apparently not. As far as I was aware this began and ended at the goodies episode "Invasion of the Moon Creatures

  14. armyknife

    Titles are for toffs.

    Lewis is again missing the point, 'suborbital space tourism' is about the next level of conspicuous consumption, plus they get to REALLY look down on the rest of us.

  15. twelvebore

    A good place to ascend to orbit... about Ascension Island? It's roughly as close to the equator as Kourou. It's surrounded by ocean too, so less chance of pissing off the Germans or Scandinavians if something goes wrong.

  16. TheOtherHobbes

    Space-X vs Skylon

    Skylon is promising roughly half the cost/kg of the Space-X projects. So it's a long way from being a mad idea.

    Of course there are questions about how achievable that is financially, and how practical it is at all. No one is going to want to live under the flight-path of a >Mach 6 take-off. And H2 might become a lot cheaper with cheap solar - or it might not.

    But the technology obviously leads to cheap hypersonic travel, which would be a game changer and would give the UK a real lead. It also would put the project into a completely different market to Space-X, which is very much a traditional tech shop with a traditional business model of monetising R&D and infrastructure originally paid for with public money.

    Considering that the UK is the only country to have had the beginnings of a satellite launch industry *which it then threw away* dismissing Skylon and the rest of the UK's space sector seems short-sighted and unimaginative.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Space-X vs Skylon

      The cost of hydrogen gas isn't in generating it; we create more than we could ever use as a byproduct of processing hydrocarbons (the hint is in the first half of the name). It has to be stored under pressure at cryogenic temperatures and poses an extreme explosion risk, so it's not the easiest fuel to use. However once you do start using it, it will massively outperform kerosene. It's got an energy density by mass three times that of kerosene (but only 1/6th by volume under pressure, which is where the problems arise), and because it's cryogenic, you can use the hydrogen fuel as engine coolant. The space shuttle and ariane 5 main engines do this to stop their engine nozzles melting, and it's exactly how the Saber engine in Skylon is going to liquefy oxygen from the air.

  17. Bob McBob

    Yeah right

    "the biggest player in the UK space economy ... without BSkyB it [UK space] would be half the size, probably less."

    Yeah that'll be the 10k staff in the $ky call-centres

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Build high

    Couldn't we just build a giant winch, like they use for gliders? Simply winch launch your spacecraft. Granted the winch would need to be big and quite high.

    I see no downsides to my plan and will be legging down the patent office in the morning,

    1. PhilipN Silver badge

      Re: Build high


    2. tfewster Silver badge

      Re: Build high

      I see the Joke Alert icon, but just in case - I'll save you the walk

  19. Volker Hett

    Living in a town where real satellites are build ..

    I happen to know some people who are in R&D as well as in production. And from them I know that they hope for a runway launch like SpaceShipOne but bigger.

    Especially the smaller satellites for lower orbits are heavier then needed for their purpose to survive the first 30 seconds until after the second stage ignites. Eliminating the first stage and launching the second one from a plane would help building much cheaper satellites.

  20. Mike Flugennock

    the joyride business

    "There has to be a serious risk for the whole sub-orbital 'space tourism' sector that its possible wealthy client base will realise at some point that you can see a black sky from a balloon and you can experience free fall and float about weightlessly in the (much bigger) cabin of an ordinary aeroplane (that's what actual space agencies do for zero-G training and experiments, in fact)..."

    All of that is true, but, still... only going into space is really like going into space. It's a unique experience far beyond high-altitude ballooning, or a ride in the Vomit Comet.

    1. Andrew Newstead

      Re: the joyride business

      A lot has been made of the "joyride" aspect but no one has mentioned the science side. It seems that Virgin has already taken money from labs wanting to fly experiments and test equipment in microgravity. Without the suborbitals the other ways are 30 second chunks. in a vomit comet or try to get a space on ISS or some other satellite.

      These suborbital beasties do have a serious application.

      1. Mike Flugennock

        Re: the joyride business

        Good point. Most folks don't talk much about suborbital because it's not "glamourous", I guess, though there's plenty of research that could be done without actually having to go into orbit (as I recall, Shepard and Grissom's Mercury suborbital flights had something like five minutes of zero-g at the top of the trajectory).

        Mind you, if through some outrageous luck, I found myself offered the chance at a suborbital jaunt aboard SS2, I'd be on it like a big dog.

  21. AndGregor

    Location Location Location.

    We still own the Falklands, right ? is that close enough to the equator for a serious launch platform ?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Location Location Location.

      It's as far south from the equator as Birmingham is north.

    2. tony2heads

      re: location location location

      Falklands are too far south (roughly as far south of the equator as London is north of it). No use.

      What about Montserrat, Saint Helena or Ascension islands? Saint Helena is building an airport, and Ascension is basically military only. Montserrat may be a little too volcanic.

  22. mhoulden

    For some reason I've now got an image of the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks floating around in space like the baddies at the start of Superman II. Better that than Rupert hijacking the moon and turning it into a Moonraker-style base anyway.

  23. Madboater

    Beagle 2

    Apart from becoming a Hollywood A-lister after its appearance in Transformers. Beagle 2 was an outstanding success! But despite that, Hell-yes we should have a space port, how cool would that be to go and watch!

  24. Francis Vaughan

    Polar orbits

    Lewis' analysis is spot on. Space ports are just plain silly, and of themselves provide little to no value. Sealaunch simply use a converted oil platform. Building a sodding huge runway with no technology on the horizon to use it is "rain following the plough" in the extreme.

    A nick pick however. Not all launches are to geosynchronous orbit. A great many are to polar orbits (the majority of Earth observation craft) and these require the exact opposite of an equatorial launch location. They benefit from a launch from as high a latitude as possible.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Does Britain really need a space port?

    Of course it does.

    But it needs to be a 'proper' British one: built entirely in black & white, presided over by a bluff handlebar-moustacheo'd old cove called "Whiskers Greatrix". The astronauts should be plucky, square-jawed pipe-smoking astronautical types with names like "Jocelyn", who talk of "wizard prangs" on the moon and cruise down to Brighton at the weekend, with their best girl [probably a Daphne or a Muriel], along empty A-roads, in an open-top sports car.

    [There'll be a special prize for the smart boy or girl who can pick the bones of an obscure cultural reference out of that lot!]

    1. The Stainless Steel Cat

      Re: Does Britain really need a space port?

      Is Professor Jocelyn Peabody all that obscure? I don't remember her having a particularly square jaw, though her eyebrows could certainly have done with some prettying up to compete with Daniel McGregor Dare's...

      Leaping lizards, Dig! Fire up the old Gyrocar and let's get down to Spacefleet HQ at Dover. I need the old face-fungus trimmed or the Mekon'll never let me hear the end of it!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Does Britain really need a space port?

        Nice try but no cigar. Actually, I bowled a bouncer by mentioning Jocelyn [man's name] when I meant Godfrey. Feel free to have another go, on the house.

    2. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Re: Does Britain really need a space port?

      "The Domes of Pico", by Hugh Walters? I admit I had to look it up, but I remembered some of the names from reading it years ago. The text is at:

    3. Mike Flugennock

      Re: Does Britain really need a space port?

      B'wahh ha ha ha ha ha. Good one!

      I'm somehow imagining something like a combination of KSC combined with a generous dollop of an old Dan Dare comic book. And absolutely, Britain's answer to Gene Krantz would be some gruff old silver-haired dude in a raggy wool sweater, chomping a pipe and with the biggest goddamn' walrus moustache you've ever seen.

      The traditional American astronaut breakfast -- at least up through the Apollo era -- was some variation of steak and eggs with black coffee and orange juice. I don't know enough about English food to hazard a guess here... although whenever a British Shuttle finishes "rolling out" after landing, I'd guess the CDR's first words to Mission Control would be something like "well, chaps, I believe a cup of tea is indicated..."

      Oh, and don't forget that along with your spaceport, you'd need an astronaut hangout. In Cocoa Beach, near KSC, it was this scraggly bar -- I forget the name -- where the astronauts all slobbed out, ate really cheap greasy food and slammed down many beers before climbing back into their Corvettes and roaring off. Your British astronaut hangout couldn't really be a normal "pub", it'd have to be some scruffy old joint with lots of old Stones records in the jukebox, and the bartender is some trash-mouthed old RAF guy who's full of stories about his Avro Vulcan days.

  26. gaz 7
    Thumb Up


    Instead of building a another bloody railway, the Govt should instead invest all that money in Skylon and get Britain back to be being a world leader in this kind of stuff.

    If/when built and assuming it does what the guys reckon it will, Skylon has the potential to change the world.

    "Build it and they will come"

  27. MyHeadIsSpinning

    Does Britain really need a space port?

    No, we need an airport. A really big one.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why do I get the impression that if the government has ANYTHING to do with the building of a space port, launches will end up resembling some of my less successful attempts trying to reach orbit in the Kerbal Space Program...

  29. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Interestingly I'd have thought REL would have been dead set *against* governement involvment

    Getting *someone* to fund the Skylon spaceport was *always* one of the things I thought was risky about the project. It's a serious chunk of cash which *only* pays off if Skylon sales happen and it has to be in place *before* that happens.

    Speculation is that the spec for the runway would be no worse than that of the B36 runways built in the US to carry its nuclear deterrent in the 1940's Thick (IIRC about 5' of steel reinforced concrete) and 15000' long. Uncommon but not *beyond* the state of the art.

    Lewis fails to note 2 things which have a *serious* impact on the idea.

    1) Skylon is *reusuable* You buy one, use it the use it *again*. Buying an F9 right now is a one shot deal. Sure they are busting their a**es to make it at least *partly* reusable but that's still got a long way to run.

    2)Virgin is *not* the only player in the sub-orbital game. Xcor aerospace are getting there. While sub-orbital is a *long* way from orbital it's a pretty good place to start a *small* fully orbital launcher from. They estimate that between those "joy rides" testing of zero gee experimental kit (for deployment to orbit in a satellite or the ISS) and acting as a launch base for (small) sat launches will make a viable business model.

    A brief note on propellants. The cost of *all* propellants (as a proportion of the *total* launch cost) is *literally* so small as to be an accounting error. Elon Musk stated the propellant bill for an F9 launch is about $150k. The *whole* launch cost is about $60m, so the propellant is 0.25%. The *most* expensive fuels are the storable hydrazines. The cost c$60/lb and would make quite viable WMD's in their own right

    A brief note on the SABRE engine. It does *not* liquify air. It "deeply pre-cools" the air. That "slight" difference saves a hell of a lot of Hydrogen and is one of the things that makes the idea work (worked out by Alan Bond in the mid 80s on his Sinclair Spectrum according to the 1989 article in Spaceflight).

  30. John H Woods Silver badge

    Money Men?

    "That said, Reaction Engines believes it will need a cool $12bn to make a Skylon fly: and it remains unclear that it can pay such an investment back on the time scales that money men demand. "

    Weird isn't it? These 'money men' seem to thing that waiting over a century to get their money back from their Facebook shares is perfectly ok.

  31. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "That said, Reaction Engines believes it will need a cool $12bn to make a Skylon fly: and it remains unclear that it can pay such an investment back on the time scales that money men demand. "

    That statement sounds *very* speculative by Lewis. REL have always been *very* conservative on costs (IE *worst* case) and on ROI

    The "money men" are expecting to talk up the stock price further then dump them on the next bunch of buyers. It's not their problem how Facebook manages to make the growth needed (either in terms of revenue per user or increasing the number of users).

    Note the current round of REL funding is looking to get £200m providing the results are favorable. One point REL have always been very quiet on is the way that figure has been lowered by the work they have done over the years. The cutting edge nature of both the engines and the structure suggest that even the *fairly* modest investments made so far (c£60m) have lowered the level of uncertainties a long way.

  32. Monkeywrench

    Great idea but...

    Make sure that you get hooked up with right company. The one that we that we chose here in Oklahoma, Rocketplane, didn't quite pan out. Have a former SAC base with great runway but got wrong partner.

  33. John 62

    French Guiana

    Is actually part of France (in terms of administration, not geography, obviously).

  34. Great Bu

    UK Space Port......

    "Milton Keynes space port. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious."

  35. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Astra sats

    The new Astra constellation is mostly being built by EADS Astrium, so a good bit of the money will be coming to the UK.

  36. Mike Flugennock

    spaceport in Britain?

    Mind you, being a Yank, I'm spoiled by living someplace where we have open space out the ass, but I've seen maps and satellite imagery of The Isles, and it doesn't look like you guys really have a lot of room for a proper spaceport. Aside from real estate for launch complexes, pads, servicing areas and such, you'd need to have plenty of clear downrange for spent stages to fall. I mean, c'mon... a spent booster stage falling on Stonehenge? That'd be all you frickin' need.

    Besides, don't you guys already have something like three or four major airports pretty much taking up the real estate you'd need for a spaceport? Then, there's that whole Equator thing.

    Also, what about Australia? Have your space big-shots considered swinging a deal with them, or has someone already thought of that? Australia's got plenty of flat open space, downrange out the ass, and really good beer -- although they may still be pissed off about the whole Skylab fragment thing.

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