13 – Is Europe stepping to the front of the line on commercial suborbital flight?


A key tenet of a true spacefaring nation is the ability to provide safe and routine access to space for its citizens.  Europe appears to be on the verge of taking a critical step forward to the front of the line with the June 13, 2007, announcement by the Astrium division, of the European aerospace company EADS, that it has been developing the conceptual design of a single-stage suborbital spaceflight system intended to support the emerging suborbital space tourist market.


The Astrium rocket plane–as shown in the cover illustration in the June 18, 2007 issue of Space News–is a canard/wing configured business-size aircraft with aft fuselage-mounted twin jet engines.  Rocket engines are, presumably, incorporated into the aft fuselage or imbedded with the jet engines. An illustration of the interior shows a business jet-sized passenger compartment with repositionable contour seats and multiple windows and handholds to facilitate the “zero-g experience.”


EADS is the large European aerospace company with a diversified range of aircraft and space products and services.  This established depth of experience and capability enables Astrium to execute in-house (as pointed out in the Space News article by Peter B. de Selding) the design and production of the rocket plane.  What Astrium now seeks is the private investment of approximately $1.3B to complete the system design and produce the initial production articles.  With financing and a 2008 start, Astrium is projecting the start of commercial flight operations as early as 2012.


Insights and possible implications:


1. World-wide aerospace technological capabilities are approaching the point where routine space access is readily achievable.  Since human spaceflight started in the early 1960’s, the “danger” of humans traveling to space has also been part of the public face of human space operations.  Rutan’s SpaceshipOne took a step forward in making human space access routine.  Astrium’s announcement would imply that no significant technical barriers are seen in developing an aircraft that has the ability to safely take its occupants into the vacuum of space.


While this sounds like a major step forward, it is not.  Business jets already fly at altitudes up to 50,000 ft where the outside atmospheric pressure is about 2 psia.  The difference between 50,000 ft and 100 km is an increase in the pressure loads acting on the fuselage of 2 psia or about 20 percent.  What is different is that the aircraft, for about 10 minutes, is on internal atmospheric controls, the jet engines must be safely shut down and restarted, and the aircraft flight control system must shift to some form of reaction controls and then back to aerodynamic controls.  Astrium’s announcement indicates that these appear to be resolvable.


Implication: While the Astrium rocket plane would not be in space for a prolonged period of time, as would an orbiting spaceplane, with the exception of thermal protection, it would appear that all of the primary space-capable subsystems would be demonstrated.  Building safe spaceships is becoming near state-of-the-art meaning that the mystic of human spaceflight is diminishing.  This means that current American plans for future human space access are starting to look (very) dated.


2.  A world-class aerospace company has effectively said that commercial suborbital space tourism is both technically achievable and human-passenger safe–when done, as they emphasize, by them–and that such a venture should prove profitable.  This places Europe in sharp contrast to the U.S. where no comparable American aerospace companies have (at least announced) a similar product offering.


Implication: Technological industries benefit by employee moral as this helps to motivate problem solving and fires innovation that lead to new products and new product lines.  Should the Astrium rocket plane program proceed, then the employees of the large EADS will receive significant motivation that their company is moving to the forefront of aerospace technology.  EADS customers will receive encouragement that they are buying from the best in the world.  One may then expect that this will lead to an American aerospace company response, if for no other reason than to say to their employees and customers that they are also at the leading edge of aerospace technology.


3. Similar to the American Rocketplane Global and XCOR concepts, the EADS Astrium announcement of a more conventionally-configured, single-stage, horizontal takeoff and landing aircraft would appear to establish such a single-stage configuration as the TRL 6-9 “third best” solution. (See Spacefaring America blog 10.)  Like most professions, the aerospace profession advances successfully through the prudent use of technological precedent.  For over a century, the design paradigm of a successful powered aircraft developed by the Wright Brothers has only been broken once with the helicopter where it successfully integrated lift, propulsion, and directional control.  


The advantage of adopting an “aircraft-configured” design solution is that much existing technologies, analytical methods, design data, technical experience and expertise, and production capabilities are available to support the design, production, testing, training, operations, and maintenance of the rocket plane.  With the possible exception of the transition between airbreathing propulsion and rocket propulsion, the actual incorporation of a rocket engine and the exoatmospheric flight of the rocket plane do not break any “new” design thresholds as these capabilities were demonstrated in a variety of X-aircraft.


Implication: While a variety of novel design approaches for reusable space access systems have been proposed for suborbital human spaceflight, EADS Astrium’s announcement of the choice of a single-stage, horizontal takeoff and landing aircraft would appear to establish this as the preferred “third-best” design.  From their perspective–noting that EADS builds both aircraft and rocket-powered launch systems–this approach provides the best way to advance aerospace state-of-the-art to suborbital commercial human spaceflight.


Implication: The successful production and testing of the Astrium rocket plane, should it be first, will establish the precedent for the successful approach used to demonstrate the safety and operability of such systems.  Being a traditional aircraft design, one may assume that something similar to a conventional aircraft ground and flight test program will be undertaken.  Flight safety, above all, follows successful precedent.  What a major aerospace corporation like EADS Astrium feels necessary to do in this regard may establish the precedent for others to follow.


4. EADS Astrium estimates of a $1.3B development and production cost and about five years to reach initial operations establishes an expectation for the level of effort required to bring a commercial suborbital human spaceflight system into operation. A recurring issue with new space companies is the understatement of the technical and monetary resources required to bring a new commercial fully-reusable spaceflight system into successful commercial operations.   In very rough numbers, at $250,000 per work-year, this equates to about 5,000 work-years of effort.  For EADS, this is a modest demand on corporate resources.  However, for American new space companies, this is a significant demand not only in terms of the number of people required, but also in terms of the corporate design, analysis, testing and production resources that must also be established.


It is also important to note that novel design solutions that require a broader range of subsystems to be developed and demonstrated, compared with the Astrium rocket plane approach, will add additional technical and schedule risk and uncertainty that may add significant additional development costs.  Hence, while the cost structure of an American new space company may be less that EADS Astrium, this advantage may be counterbalanced by the added costs and risks of the different design solution they are pursuing combined with the need to create the technological infrastructure that is available to Astrium through EADS.


Implication: A cost and schedule benchmark for American new space companies engaged in commercial suborbital human spaceflight system development has been established.  This is not to say that different approaches may not yield similar capabilities with significantly less development and production costs.  However, good explanations for lower development and production costs while achieving comparable levels of demonstrated safety would certainly seem to be expected for competing design approaches.


5. With a successful space tourist rocket plane, EADS Astrium would then have a demonstrated mastery of suborbital spaceflight operations that could lead to further product offerings.  For example, the choice of the single-stage business jet configuration, contrasted with the two-stage Virgin Galactic configuration, could provide a technical baseline for future commercial growth into suborbital business/military/government travel across oceans.  As a replacement to the Concorde, for example, a future business rocket plane could make the transit time across the Atlantic a comparatively short flight, with the added bonus of a lengthened the “zero-g” experience.  Business leaders, government leaders, diplomats, and military commanders would be able to cut travel times dramatically with a flight system that, after reentry, would integrate into normal aircraft operations and be capable of conventional air travel within Europe and the United States to the final destination.  This would revolutionize business travel with, one would expect, virtually no impact on existing flight operations.  Alternative two-stage or vertical takeoff and landing single-stage systems would not appear to offer this growth opportunity.  The former would not have the benefit of the first-stage carrier aircraft being available while the latter would not have the benefit of being able to use traditional airports for departures and arrivals.


In the 1960s, business leaders climbing into a Learjet was a statement of corporate success that was clearly evident.  By 2020, climbing into an EADS Astrium business rocket plane may be a comparable statement of corporate success.  The competition, cruising along at Mach 0.9 at 50,000 ft would know that their competition is streaking across the ocean, at the edge of space, perhaps taking the customer’s corporate leaders along for the “zero-g” experience to help make the deal.


Implication:  EADS Astrium’s entry into the commercial suborbital human spaceflight arena may be based on the combination of a short-term strategy for establishing technological leadership coupled with a longer-term view towards the next era of high-end business and government travel. 


6. The new EADS Astrium technical mastery of reusable suborbital space access systems could also be exploited to support European efforts towards the next important spacefaring step of fully-reusable “aircraft-like” orbital spaceflight for passengers and cargo.  Such is the initial major milestone for an emerging spacefaring nation.  Not to be understated, orbital flight is a significant design and performance advancement over commercial suborbital tourist spaceflight.  However, properly undertaken, the successful development of the suborbital passenger spaceplane may be very helpful in taking the next step forward towards fully-reusable orbital flight.


The first such step could be the possible evolution of the space tourist rocket plane into a passenger spaceplane that would be carried to orbit on a two-stage-to-orbit aerospaceplane. (Note: Some refer to use the term reusable launch vehicle or RLV.  I prefer the term aerospaceplane because it is the safety and operability characteristics of aircraft, as opposed to expendable launch vehicles, that are desired.)  Once delivered to orbit, the passenger spaceplane would deliver passengers and supplies and then renter the atmosphere, decelerate, restart the jet engines, and land much as the suborbital rocket plane will. 


A second important step is that EADS’s technical mastery of suborbital spaceflight–the general systems engineering technologies, design approaches, analytical methods, and engineering principles and practices established during the development of the space tourist rocket plan–should prove very helpful during the design and development of the two-stage aerospaceplane.  EADS Astrium will have a good expertise and experience base on which to undertake the aerospaceplane systems development.  That Europe has been interested in such capabilities is demonstrated by their long interest in the Sanger two-stage aerospaceplane concept,


Implication: The EADS Astrium rocket plane concept–should this program be successfully undertaken–may be expected to foster confidence within the European community that they can then take the next step and develop an orbit-capable fully-reusable system.  While the United States focuses on developing expendable-launched human capsules for reaching space, Europe will be moving towards becoming a true spacefaring “nation.”  Effectively, Europe may be exploiting the advantage of not being able to launch humans into space today to create a sustainable path for their future.  The United States, on the other hand, not wishing to “lose” the ability to launch humans into space, may be opting for the shortsighted expedient of developing new expendable-launched human capsules.

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