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Engineer reveals frustration at lack of investment in space planes

Risk averse aviation companies are standing in the way of Britain leading the world in the development of "revolutionary" space planes, an engineer pioneering the technology has told MPs.

David Ashford, managing director of the Bristol Spaceplanes company, said space planes were likely to have as big an impact as the steam locomotive, a British invention, did in the 19th century.

But his own experience had identified a major stumbling block to the dream of re-usable space vehicles that take off and land like aircraft, lack of industry support.

The unwillingness of big players in the aviation industry to back a "disruptive" technology was the factor most likely to derail Government plans for a UK space port, said Mr Ashford.

He told the Science and Technology Select Committee: "The main risk is just lack of investment capital.

"Space planes are going to revolutionise space flight eventually, and if the UK wants to develop the world's first space plane, which it could do, you need the money."

He added: "We're trying to team up with major players, and we're having great trouble engaging in dialogue with them.

"It's sort of, 'space planes aren't in our strategic plan, dear boy', and that's meant to close the conversation down.

"Then I say no, its not in your strategic plan because it's a disruptive technology, but the first one of you guys that puts it there hits the jackpot, and there's a very long pause."

He said that three years ago he wrote to former science minister David Willetts asking for his help with introductions to potential industry partners.

But despite a "very nice" letter back from Mr Willetts, and further representations made later to the current science minister Jo Johnson, there had not been "a single introduction".

"I don't think it's the fault of the UK Space Agency, it's the fault of the big companies that just don't want to know, because it's so new, said Mr Ashford.

The select committee was looking at the Draft Spaceflight Bill, which sets out the legislative framework paving the way to a UK space port.

The Government wants to see satellites being launched into space from the UK by 2020. Grants worth £10 million are being made available to help prospective commercial developers.

The aim is to give the UK a bigger slice of a space industry market expected to be worth more than £25 billion over the next 20 years.

Several coastal aerodromes that could be converted to space ports have been shortlisted, including Campbeltown, Glasgow Prestwick, and Stornoway in Scotland, Newquay in England, and Llanbedr in Wales.

It is envisaged space planes could fly from a British space port both to place satellites in orbit and to carry fee-paying passengers on sub-orbital flights.

Bristol Spaceplanes has a concept design that combines a "carrier" aircraft powered by air-breathing engines and a detachable rocket-powered "orbiter".

Mr Ashford, who showed MPs a model of the space plane, told the committee: "A proper space plane .. it can really slash the cost of launching satellites, by at least 100 times, possibly even 1,000.

"It's going to revolutionise space flight like the steam locomotive revolutionised land transport. Its that level of transformation."

Mr Ashford argued space planes had a history going right back to the early days of space flight in the 1960s.

Most big aircraft companies at the time had large teams looking at the technology, which was seen as the "obvious next step" after converting ballistic missiles into launch vehicles.

It was the race to the moon that put paid to the early space plane projects, Mr Ashford maintained.

"The aircraft company design teams were disbanded," he said.

Another witness from one of the world's biggest aerospace companies said he doubted a British space port would up and running as early as 2020.

Richard Peckham, business development director at Airbus Group, said: " I would certainly say it's close to impossible .. I think it could be not too far away from 2020, but 2020's going to be pretty nigh impossible."

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