Powering the Future, Building the Engines of Tomorrow

Skylon ground

Image courtesy of Adrian Mann

If R is for Rocket, as Ray Bradbury suggested in the title of his 1962 collection of short stories, then “S” must surely be for Skylon. For Skylon and for space, for the former is now without doubt the best way we have of reaching the latter. In the lexicon of space travel there is now a new byword for cutting edge.

We live in a noisy world: machines and motors of every description, ever-multiplying and ever-louder media outlets, the ceaseless clatter of keyboards and keypads as people interface with the virtual world. In such a deluge of noise, the din of everyday life, it’s easy to miss the one sound we should all be listening out for, the sound of the future: the test firing of a British rocket engine, one designed to power a reusable spaceplane. Reality, it seems, is finally about to catch up with the imaginary exploration of space as foreseen by the BIS since the 1930s.

It’s an odd paradox but sometimes you have to listen quietly to hear the loudest of sounds, even that of a rocket engine coming to life. Once the sound of such engines was deafening, echoing around the globe with the launch of each new Apollo mission, the rolling thunder of history in the making. But times change and the world hasn’t heard the sound of a Saturn engine since 1975. The launch gantries at Cape Canaveral are strangely silent, haunted by the ghosts of astronauts both living and dead who now have nowhere to go (see: Barnstorming heroics at the Edge of Space1, April 2011). So the ignition of a rocket engine anywhere in the world ought to be enough to catch our attention, especially the test firing of a new design on British soil. It is nothing less than the precursor of “something wonderful,” the first machine built to go from runway to orbit and back again.

Each Saturn V was a javelin thrown into the future, a marker in the sand, a signpost on the road ahead. And for generations now we’ve been asking the same question: Are we there yet? Have we reached the future we all once dreamed of? Well, not quite. But here’s the technological rub. Skylon can get us there. It can reclaim the future we let slip away when we all lived in a more innocent age: holidays in space, cities on the Moon, research bases on Mars. And say it softly: the harbinger of all this, the very engine that might eventually power the human exploration of the solar system, is a British design. And Skylon, all sleek arrowhead curves with a body as black as a raven’s wing, looks the part.   Adrian Mann, whose fine artwork graces this article, summed it up nicely when he observed: “When I first saw Skylon, I was reminded of a quote from Mutt Summers, the Avro test pilot, commenting on the Lancaster: ““If it looks right, it is right,”” and boy, Skylon looks so right!”

Skylon in space

Image courtesy of Adrian Mann

At the moment, the thinnest of threads links Skylon to such a future but with a little vision and the right support there’s no reason why that thread can’t become the firmest of ties, an unbreakable bond, an anchored and ever-stronger filament along which commerce and industry can travel just like the ribbon of an orbital tower carrying cargo and passengers aloft.  As Dr David Baker, editor of Spaceflight magazine explains: “Skylon is the only propulsion concept developed to a stage where practical tests can quantify theory that promises to find application in both high-speed air transport and satellite delivery. Its greatest value surely lies in that it can be adapted to civil and military air operations for atmospheric and trans-atmospheric flight, and to space operations as well. In this way, it multiplies its useage and hence its value by expanding the potential market for multiple applications. It can be both successor to Concorde for air transport and to high-cost launchers for satellites and space vehicles currently dominated by monopolies unwilling to invest in new technologies.”

History it seems is not without a sense of irony. The Americans and the Russians may have got there first but now (to borrow a rallying cry used by Colin Welland at the 1981 Oscar ceremony) the British are coming. We may be coming late to the party but we are bringing the one present everyone wants to unwrap, a once in a lifetime gift. And to ride this very real wave of the future, to catch a ride on Skylon, all you need to do is believe: the technology works and the cost savings are real. And with the right financial backing the pay-off could be – no, will be – immense.

As Odyssey has already suggested (Mothballing the Future2, April 2011), the brooding shape of Skylon looms over British hopes like the black heraldic shield of a re-emergent Plantagenet, a Round Table of engineers and futurists determined to fulfill the heritage of Black Arrow and Blue Streak. But these latter day crusaders are trying not so much to kill the dragon as to harness its energy; and it’s a dragon which breathes air rather than fire, Skylon’s revolutionary engines acting as both jet and rocket motors. It’s tempting to see Alan Bond  – the innovative driving force behind Skylon at Reaction Engines – as a modern day Frank Whittle, struggling in the face of a conservative establishment (both scientific and political) to realise the full Promethean potential of his “game changing” creation.  But surely history, with all its capricious twists and turns, will not repeat itself; the “space engine” is too good a chance to pass up, even by politicians who sometimes seem incapable of seeing further into the future that the day after tomorrow.

Skylon is like a fragment of that tomorrow which has found its way into the engineering workshops at Reaction Engines, and which is even now being prepared for its return journey (back into the future.) And why settle for yesterday, with all its faded glories, when you can have the fully-realised promise of tomorrow, the “promise of space” foreseen by BIS visionaries like Arthur C. Clarke in his prescient agenda for the future, set out in detail as long ago as the 1950s in books such as Interplanetary Flight (1950) and The Exploration of Space (1951).


Spitfire and Skylon: not so far apart, linked by a common heritage of iconic engines. Image courtesy of Adrian Mann

In my garden stand three oaks older by far than my house, ancient sentinels that took root at the beginning of the last century. Somewhere in the deep archive of their trunks is buried the sound of Messerschmitt and Spitfire, duelling in the skies of England, more than half a century ago. Did those hidden rings, which mark the passing of the years as accurately as any human clock, record the sound of this week’s test firing at Abingdon in Oxford? Perhaps a faint echo reached these silent bastions, to be buried away beneath their barks, like chemicals leaking into the Turin Shroud.

I hope, one day, to stand under the branches of those trees and gaze up at a sky which contains a familiar shape, the black outline of a Skylon rocket ship heading up through the atmosphere out into space, rising effortlessly on the same trajectory that took the sons of Apollo all the way to the Moon. One day the archive of historic sounds (which BIS member Richard Hollingham and his team of Space Boffins are doing so much to document and record) will include Skylon’s Sabre engines, scything their way into space.  The Rolls Royce Merlin engine (was there ever a more finely tuned machine or a more iconic sound, now sadly all but gone from our skies), the quartet of Olympus engines on Concorde, and the Sabres which will one day be brandished on a fit-for-flight Skylon: these are all bewitching, ear-catching sounds which prompt us to look up into the sky and out into space, to cast our eyes in the direction of better things yet to come.

It’s time to build the future. It’s time to let Skylon fly.

Mark Stewart, FBIS


Barnstorming Heroics at the Edge of Space: http://www.bis-space.com/2012/02/10/3636/barnstorming-heroics

Mothballing the Future: http://www.bis-space.com/2012/04/19/4435/mothballing-the-future


Be sociable; support the BIS!