Mission Aviation Fellowship

Spaceports and robots

Spaceports and robotsThe Queen’s Speech is Government’s way of telling the UK – and the world – what its plans are. The Queen doesn’t actually write it, of course. That’s done by the politicians. She just has to read it out. I bet she sometimes has pretty strong views about the content, but she’s diplomatic enough to keep it all to herself.

One thing the Her Majesty may have genuinely found interesting is the Government’s plans for a spaceport. One of the parts of her speech was about placing the UK at the forefront of such a facility, and to open spaceflight up to a much wider cross section of society.

This is precisely the sort of big thinking which can make Britain great. I’ve got more than a passing knowledge of the autonomous vehicles sector, not least because I’ve got friends who build a drone or robot – called ‘Starship’ – to deliver goods to your house. This one doesn’t fly and, frankly, airborne drones are a particularly silly way to deliver shopping. It’s potentially dangerous and poses a threat to commercial and private aviation, and the economics currently do not stack up, being much more expensive than ground-based delivery options.

…there needs to be a creative solution to the dangers of drone flying if the Government is to truly take control of the situation

There’s a more practical kind of drone – called Starship – which will trundle along the pavement when nobody is in the way, and turn up at your door with no drama and fuss at all. These pose absolutely no threat to anyone – and certainly won’t be infringing airspace or causing air miss reports like the one recently attributed to a drone impacting with a commercial airliner on approach to land. Even if it was a plastic bag, as has been suggested by the Department for Transport, there will inevitably be an impact between a drone and an aircraft, with potentially fatal consequences. The legislation needed to regulate flying drones can’t really ban evildoing or stupidity. As such, there needs to be a creative solution to the dangers of drone flying if the Government is to truly take control of the situation.

As for space ships – bring it on! This aspect of the bill is genuinely inspirational and, if it comes to pass, could awaken a new generation to the wonders of science. I’ve spoken with the people behind the proposed spaceports over the last few years. They’re absolutely serious, and the UK is well placed to make it happen. The UK led the world in aircraft which could fly into orbit with the revolutionary HOTOL space, plane which would have been in operation by now, if the lamentable, blinkered antics of Margaret Thatcher had not led to its ruination – and sell off abroad.

One would imagine that a more affordable approach to space flight would be a collective effort, for example on a pan-European basis. Such collaboration is necessary when the costs are cripplingly high. However, it seems to me that the price of orbit is coming down all the time. A hybrid device which flies high with jet power and then makes a transition to rocket power could attract serious private contenders into the market, as Branson’s efforts have already shown.

The UK is well placed to enter this new space race. To this day, there’s a satellite called Prospero which was launched from Australia’s Woomera spaceport over four DECADES ago on a British designed rocket called Black Arrow. It will continue to circle the earth until around 2070. The rocket was remarkably eco-friendly, with none of the enormous pollution associated with the kinds of rockets that propelled America to the moon. All this means that space is a serious business proposition these days.

There’s a less quantifiable element in the mix, too. The lure of space has occupied the minds of scientists and dreamers for centuries. The idea that we might, as a country, find the imagination and courage to actually return to the heavens on our own rocket-powered machines is literally uplifting and suggests there are still visionaries in politics.

From a pilot’s perspective, there’s an obvious opportunity. If these kinds of journeys become more common, perhaps because of sub-orbital or semi-orbital commercial flights which can reduce travel times from the UK to Australia to something like three hours, there will be enough people able to afford the trip to justify reasonably large fleets of aircraft – all of which need to be staffed.

I very much doubt that passenger aircraft will employ the sort of drone technology we’ve already considered. Human pilots, in my opinion, will certainly be necessary for psychological as well as practical reasons. Just one fatal accident involving a fully automated spacecraft would quite probably dent – or even wreck – the chances of widespread use of un-piloted machines, especially given the large number of incidents where human intervention has been essential to preventing a catastrophe in space across the last half century.

This means you could have the chance to get paid to fly into space, on a routine basis. The training will be intense, spectacularly rigorous and doubtless highly selective in terms of who gets through. But for the lucky ones, this would be a stunningly exciting job.

The late Arthur C. Clarke speculated that the moon landings may be one of the only achievements which will be remembered from the 20th Century by future generations. This may indeed be true. I sincerely hope that the UK will be involved in writing the next cosmic path-finding chapter, with take offs and landings occurring on British soil. The whole universe awaits our curious species, and it will be liberating if we don’t have to depend on others in the US and Russia for our ticket to ‘ride the fire’ to the stars.

And when it happens, it would be poetic, don’t you think, if the Flight Training News edition which informs you of the first manned British rocket launch were delivered to your doorstep by a six wheeled robot, called Starship.

Author: FTN

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