Spaceplanes, real and imagined

EADS Astrium has proposed developing a suborbital spaceplane for several years, but has made little progress beyond some early-stage technology development work. (credit: EADS Astrium)

Yesterday Scaled Composites competed a fourth glide flight of SpaceShipTwo. According to the flight log all test objectives were achieved on the 11.5-minute test, the first glide flight of the suborbital spaceplane since November 17. The test log notes, among other things, that water ballast was dumped from the vehicle prior to landing, “which produced a visible contrail.” Burt Rutan had a succinct evaluation of the flight, according to “Went great.”

Contrast that with comments by the head of EADS Astrium about its suborbital spaceplane project, as reported by the BBC. “We continue to mature the concept, maintaining the minimum team, in order that when we find the relevant partnership we are ready and have progressed sufficiently,” CEO François Auque told reporters. “We keep the investment going.” The emphasis in those comments should be on “maintaining the minimum team”, since there’s been little evidence of major progress in the vehicle’s development. Company officials have said in the past that despite the company’s large internal financial resources, it was seeking outside investment before going into full-scale development of the vehicle. For example, at a space tourism conference in London in mid-2009, Astrium’s Hugues Laporte-Weywada said the company had slowed down work on the project, awaiting financing from potential operators before proceeding with additional work. “For sure we will not be the first” company to field a suborbital vehicle, he admitted at the time.

But with such significant sources of funding hard to come by—the company has previously estimated the development cost of the vehicle at as much as €1 billion (US$1.33 billion)—it’s not clear when, or even if, the vehicle will move into full-fledged development.

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