More on EADS’ suborbital vehicle plans

Some reaction (and clarification) on the EADS Astrium announcement this week about its plans to develop a suborbital vehicle for space tourism markets:

Burt Rutan, contacted by, doesn’t think much of the plan. He thinks it, and other rocket-powered aircraft that take off from a runway under rocket or jet power, will be more expensive to develop and operate, and also have greater operational risks. “The non-recurring development cost of a suborbital spaceship that has rocket and jet engines — both of which leave the atmosphere and experience reentry — will be far more than our SpaceShipTwo program,” he said.

The vice president of the European Commission, Guenter Verheugen, is also dissatisfied with the Astrium proposal, but for very different reasons: “It’s only for the super rich, which is against my social convictions,” he told Reuters. (One wonders what he thinks of the many terrestrial luxury items and resorts that are also affordable only by the “super rich” in Europe or elsewhere.) The article also notes that an Airbus official “declined to answer a question on the apparent paradox of a company trying to cut emissions in one area while investing in a project to blast rich travellers into space.” Perhaps because the paradox wasn’t apparent to him or others.

Also, thanks to a few readers that helped alleviate my ignorance about the seating inside Astrium’s “space jet”. It turns out the seats are hinged on each end, allowing the seats to rotate into the proper position during ascent so that the g-forces are aligned on the Gx vector through the body. It turns out there’s an illustration in a brochure about the vehicle, although, curiously, no matching image in a photo gallery. In any case, it makes much more sense to me now.

12 comments to More on EADS’ suborbital vehicle plans

  • Peter Shearer

    I’m glad the seat thing got clarified… that was perplexing me too.

    Two huge problems though. The first is the lack of swept wings… Supersonicly it’ll be unstable. The only way to go supersonic with unswept wings is to have a wing that’s flat on the bottom, pointed (very pointed) leading edges and needs to place the maximum thickness halfway down the chord (instead of the usual 1/4th). This will lead to a VERY unefficient and unstable low speed flight. Even then, mach 3 will require swept wings I think.

    Second problem… Where the hells the re-entry method? Without any “feathering” or shuttlecock or as of yet undiscovered method of safely re-entering the vehicle would need to be made of titanium and have heat shielding (like the X-15 or SR-71). With this method you’re going nose first (which screws with the seating arrangement) and do you know what mach 4 is going to do to those turbines? YEAH… BAD.

    Burt is right, the development and operating costs are ridiculous with a ground launch.

    You want to know what I think? I think they hired a Industrial Design Firm to design this and make all those pretty renderings… I think it’s DEFINATELY a FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The “big boys” of space industry don’t want the “little guys” to snake their territory from them. They want people to think space is expensive so they can keep charging their absurd prices.

    In the MSNBC article their Chief Technical Officer even tried to make fun of their competition… “There are those who think you can design a rocket plane in a garage.” HA… that’s stupid, we design the rocket plane in the den on our laptop and BUILD it in the garage. We have our board meetings in the kitchen.

    I think this is a joke. Don’t even expect to see anything come of this… I think the “garage builders” have a better shot of making space-tourism a success than this organization.

    …But we’ll see.

  • Mikael Wozniak

    Concerning the reentry, how to avoid the “nose-first” configuration?? (especially with that big window at the front)

    I think their idea is the fact they have a set of small rocket thrusters on the plane in order to be in the position they like at any time, like a RCS system… It can work but it make the project quite complex: 2 turbines + 1 rocket engines + 1 RCS… On the same vehicle, sunds like a lot to me.

    Concerning the turbines on reentry and in the vaccum, is it such a big problem?


  • Mikael Wozniak

    Concerning the FUD theory, well, I’m not convinced so far.

    Those guys worked a lot on that presentation. They did wind tunnel tests, they hired one of the top world designer for the cabin… Those things cost money.

    They invested time and money, they put their name in the balance. If it was only a FUD stuff, they could have done it for far less time/money/reputation costs than that but as you said, Wait and see.

  • Peter Shearer

    They will definately have a RCS. It’s something no spaceship can live without… But reorientating itself is only a small part of the battle. The vehicle has to have some sort of re-entry method… some sort of reconfiguration of the aerodynamics… The space shuttles elevons turn up to break the wings in half… Actually it does the same thing that SS1 does but without the rudders connected to the wing ends which puts SS1’s tail stabilizers further back (and up while in “feather” mode). You could actually think of SS1 as a “sailplane” version of the Space Shuttle. Unfortunately for the shuttle it only works with a delta wing, it only works with MILLIONS of dollars of wind tunnel tests and it only works if the vehicle re-enters at a percise angle (which on-board computers must control). SS1 does this “hands-free” as it is highly stable and automaticly reorients itself.

    Long story short… Without an aerodynamic reconfiguring method that vehicle is screwed. The tails will turn the nose down and the speed will climb and climb (probably to mach 5) at which the heat will be severe and without a heavy/expensive heat shield it’ll burn up. Drag flaps like on commercial airliners are insufficient (and unstable). Unless they’ve got a method up their sleaves, this vehicle as depicted does not have a reentry method and will burn up. Of course, it’ll never make it up with those unswept wings either… :(

    As for the “turbines in a vacuum” the problem isn’t the vacuum time of the flight… it’s the fact that the vehicle will go supersonic while still in the atmosphere (during the pull-up) and regardless of how thin the air is getting as it goes up Mach 3 is still Mach 3… Not only would the turbines add substantial drag (from a non-supersonic inlet design) but air would want to flow through it even after it’s turned off. The turbine blades aren’t designed for those speeds… They won’t survive.

    As for FUD… Yes they’ve spent a lot and I’m curious why they’d screw with their reputation but for a giant aerospace outfit like them… throwing millions of dollars on something to scare away the competition is something they’d do in a heartbeat… No questions asked, no regrets. Companies that big do it all the time.

    …But hey, the more companies that work towards space tourism (whether serious or not) the better.

  • Seer

    Peter, FUD – scaring away the competition – only makes sense if in fact you have a product or service you wish to protect. EADS don’t have anything that competes with Scaled or Rocketplane.

  • Peter Shearer

    Seer, I’m referring to the idea that EADS wants to keep “little guys” out of their “big boys” backyard. After Scaled and Rocketplane have proven sub-orbital then they’re going to go after orbital… That IS EADS territory and they’re going to do it a lot cheaper… This scares EADS (I would think…).

    Boeing, Lockheed, EADS (and NASA) have the public convinced that space is a multi-billion dollar venture and that it’s really really hard. Burt Rutan proved them wrong.

    This isn’t about competing products… This is about the territory of SPACE industry itself. This is monumental I think.

  • EADS is going to do orbital a lot cheaper? Who knew?

    What’s been keeping them from doing it?

  • Ivan Kraus

    Peter Shearer is absolutely right, the same doubts resulting in the same sceptical answers with the horrifying final conclusion, regrettably.

    I have never realised how big pressure this all would (could) generate intentionally to the folks who mean this business seriously (Burt and his team especially as they seem to be in the front line – remember the amount of hysteric e-mails mentioned by Brian Binnie after the 1st Xprize SS1 flight to stop the programme obtained even from the companies who must have very well understood that the ship was not in real danger)

    Wish them all good luck!

  • Ferris Valyn


    I think what Peter was saying when he said “That IS EADS territory and they’re going to do it a lot cheaper”, the they’re in fact refered to Scaled/Virgin/Rocketplane/Masten/Armadillo guys.

    I could be wrong, but thats how I read it.

  • I talked to one of those guys in Paris (the mockup was shown in the frame of the Air Show in Le Bourget). What you see is a design study made by an artist. They gave him the diameter of the fuselage and he designed something. When I asked him how he thinks to survive mach 4 with this sailplane-like wings he only shrug his shoulders and said “look, this is only a design study. Its very likely that the real plane will look completely different”.
    BTW: They have indeed attitude control thrusters. I think the EADS announcement can help the smaller companies to find investors, because it gives the space tourism market more credibility (even if the EADS plane is IMHO a silly design and the business plan isn’t well thought out.

  • JyN

    Hello Jeff, hello you all. You actually miss another key point about the seats : they slide (along a sort of rail) to minimize the G-force ! Good idea isn’t it ?!!

    I’m very surprised by all the bad opinions about this EADS try to make space tourism a reality ! All ideas going in that direction should be encouraged I think…

    Considering that Arianne is a succes for years, hopping ATV and Colombus for the ISS will certainly be great too, why their Space Jet would’nt be excellent too ?

    Jeff, congratulations for your website !

    … and sorry if they are any english mistake, I’m a french galactic websurfer !

  • More on EADS’ suborbital vehicle plans…

    An update on EADS’ plans for a suborbital tourism space plane with some commentary….

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