The proposed Skylon space transport. Looks a little SR-71 derivative, doesn’t it? Image from Wikimedia.org.
Every now and then I’ve heard of this Skylon space transport. It sounds very interesting and I honestly hope technology like it does come to fruition. But here’s the thing: Skylon-related research has apparently been going on for over thirty years. According to the wiki, which might contain some inaccuracies, the idea of horizontal take-off and landing with a single stage reusable spacecraft was starting to be explored by the United Kingdom government as early as 1982. Skylon has cost UK taxpayers about $12 billion just in development (at least according to the wiki). What has the result been thus far?
This is my question, because Skylon sounds very neat. It seems like it would really be revolutionary if the technology becomes a reality. But the catch is that I haven’t seen signs of Skylon approaching reality at all. There are a few BBC videos of engine tests, but I’m not a engine specialist, and they could just be showing off a jet engine. What I am seeing is a lot of “dog and pony” animations only of what Skylon could look like and what Skylon could do. Maybe the BBC is part of the cheering section?
It looks like the Skylon animation budget is at least getting its money’s worth. But the animations seem to be the only product from the Skylon program, which raises red flags to me.
Why? Well, let’s look at a few other rocket programs, also aiming to be reusable and inexpensive. SpaceX has been making a lot of noise and news about their Falcon 9 rocket. Not only has the Falcon 9 been successful for the relatively new rocket company, but SpaceX have been developing many different technologies to make their rocket approach reusability (you can read up on some of those things, here).
While SpaceX is testing basically vertically launched and vertically landed rockets, Virgin Galactic seems to be edging more into the horizontally launched and landed rocket territory of the Skylon. They’ve been test launching their rocket for a few years now, and SpaceShip one, the first of this type of Virgin Galactic rocket, first flew into space over 10 years ago, in June 2004. There is no similar evidence of progress from Reaction Engines, Limited, which has been working on Skylon for nearly 25 years.
Even more distressing is the fact that Skylon is supposed to make access to space cheaper, which this CNN post states will be about $94 million per flight. That price is cheaper than Arianespace and ULA rocket flights–however, SpaceX already advertises around a $6o million per rocket flight basic cost–without reusability thrown in. And Musk has said he believes once his rockets attain reusability, the prices will suddenly be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range, not the ridiculous millions needed currently.
Virgin Galactic is selling seats for $250,000 a pop. This means it will also be able to sell the option to launch payloads cheaply–definitely cheaper than $94 million. Just to be more international, even India is managing to get payloads into geosynchronous orbit for about $70 million (and their system isn’t designed to be reusable).
Have either SpaceX or Virgin Galactic actually used their reusable rockets for any commercial launches yet? No–but they are showing more than animations and engine tests. They are showing actual rockets in flight with video of what their rockets are doing during testing. Shouldn’t Skylon, after all of these years, be able to do the same thing? And for cheaper than $94 million? If that price is their goal, then isn’t that already heading for failure, because it just won’t be able to compete with cheaper possible reusable options?
Anyway, until they can actually fly a Skylon, the program will all be just smoke and mirrors to me. And too expensive for my tastes.
Update: Oh dear! It seems there are true fans out there of this particular technology, just like with SpaceX. Some care enough to clarify a few things about REL, Skylon, etc.and point out the initial pricing launch, which comes from ESA via CNN, is too high. Read those comments if you wish to learn more.