This is probably the last post in this series. I kept hitting the max post length and wanted to cover Reaction Engines as well as give a commentary.
I'd also like to make a quick commentary. First up, the last of the private human spaceflight efforts of note.
If ever there was a group of true believers who would just not give up, it would be the folks behind Reaction Engines. These guys are working on an
engine for a trans atmospheric vehicle, in the old parlance, or a horizontal takeoff and landing single stage to orbit. That's right: these folks
are pursuing what many have and abandoned. Several times. Even cyclically. Yet, RE keeps going. How long have they been going? Since the 1980s.
Yup, around 30 years.
RE has its roots in the efforts around the world to build transatmospheric vehicles in the 1980s. The beautiful vision was to have a plane takeoff
and fly to orbit. The world pretty much went all in on the concept and tried different directions. The Americans went with the
National Aerospace Plane
and used scramjets. That was cancelled. The Germans went forward with
their Sanger concept
, but it was a two stage to orbit (TSTO) rather than SSTO. That,
too, was cancelled. The Japanese went forward with their own design that used LACE, liquid air combustion engines: these liquified the air into
becoming a cryogenic fluid as the aircraft flew and then burned the air with fuel in rocket engines (much simplified over reality, but that's the
basic concept). The Russians even triggered the development of the Tu-2000
in 1986 as a
response to the craze to make sure they kept up. The Brits went with their HOTOL
which, like the
Japanese, also used a LACE engine. The HOTOL was cancelled.
With two exceptions, the world shut down their hypersonic developments until recently: the US kept plugging away at hypersonic tech primarily for
military use and the Brits. Some of the people involved with the HOTOL refused to give up and they founded
With the last 30 years, with modest funding, the Brits had been working away at getting the engine working. They focused on one of the most
problematic aspects: the precooler for the engine to turn the air into a liquid. Within the last few years, they have made significant progress.
Enough so that ESA did a study based on the progress that RE had made and foresaw no major problems. However, the funding they received was more like
a high end research project than a ramping up developmental project: 80 million Pounds (~$106M).
RE may be going the route of British Aerospace, too, and to call it strictly British might be a misnomer: they have opened a facility in Colorado and
are now receiving US government funding (AFRL and DARPA money) for developing and testing their cooler designs.
The ultimate goal is to design and build the Skylon
, RE's updated version of the HOTOL.
It should be noted, the funding to get this done was, in 2004, almost $12 billion. RE has NOT come close to securing this money: they haven't even
scratched the 10% mark. Likewise, the cooler designs are only being tested up to Mach 5 with the DARPA contract: they need to be tested to much, much
higher speeds and temperatures (and the problems worked out) before an engine can be built. Likewise, even if they have the cooler working, that's
only part of the entire engine. Finally, the Skylon concept requires breakthroughs in material science for the mass fraction to work out for Skylon
to make it to orbit.
If Reaction Engines continues on the route they have been with the rate of progress to date, they have another 30 years to go. OTOH, given they have
caught the attention of the US gov's wild wild tech branches, they may accelerate that time frame. OTGH, there are two loose cannons that might
either muck that potentiality up or greatly accelerate it: BREXIT and the possible formation of the US Space Force. Either of those could either nuke
or greatly accelerate RE.
With that, that's the end of the private space programs. There are more, but most are either too small to go be given attention or are unlikely to
make a lot of progress.
There's a lot going on in the space world, Right now, it's looking more and more like the world has set aside the fast dash to X and started
putting into place the infrastructure to get into deep space and back onto the Moon. waystations, heavy lift rockets and more, oh my. However, all
of this can be swept away in a major economic shift, a failure to anticipate future tech changes, political shifts or just becoming plain unwilling to
fund the necessary work. No bucks: no Buck Rogers.
While we might fret here in the US, the ones that seem to be in the biggest financial trouble are the Russians. They take in hundreds of millions of
dollars ferrying astronauts from around the world to the international space station. Starting next year, that will no longer be necessary.
Energomash, one of the primary builders of Russian rocket engines, built 19 engines in 2018:
17 of those
were for the Americans. Purchases of
those engines are banned starting in 2022 and, given the long lead for building those engines, Energomash will have major impacts starting in 2020...2
years from now. Unless there is a massive cash infusion from the Russian gov or other Russian customers, things look bleak at the company. This is
at a time when the Russian government is under significant sanctions and is spread too thin based on the price of oil and its commitments: the Su-57,
PAK-DA, pensions, T-14 (plus other) tanks, nuclear weapons, infrastructure, etc. are all just as important, if not more so, and yet are being
postponed significantly, including increasing the age of retirement for the pensions. Russian pride may not let that happen. However, unless there is
a significant sea change in the Russian finances for their space program (and their gov in general), it's entirely possible by 2030 Russia will no
longer be a space faring nation, at least in terms of an independent human spaceflight capability.
The players in the mid 21st century may be rather different than today. No Russia? Red Planet landings by the Indians and Chinese? Even the Arabs
are starting to found space agencies: UAE in particular. The future will be weird. And the laws of physics don't care what the color of your flag
is, they work the same for everyone. Who is willing to put up the cash to work with them.