Sunday, August 11, 2013

“I think the next few decades we might see some of the science fiction dreams we’ve had actually come true”

so says astronomy journalist Stuart Clark, in reference to the SABRE engine / Skylon aircraft being developed in the U.K. It doubles as both a super-Concorde that would enable flights between the UK and Australia lasting just four hours, and as a new, improved version of the Space Shuttle:

"This supersonic aircraft... would be able to take off from any runway in the world, accelerate to five times the speed of sound using a hybrid jet-rocket engine, then transition to rocket mode to break through the Earth’s orbit and reach outer space. After dropping off a payload of satellites, astronauts... the Skylon could return to land on the same runway less than 48 hours later. Used as a traditional aircraft, the Skylon could take 300 passengers from London to Sydney in four hours."

That's from Slate's Jeremy Stahl, who rounds up a bunch of sceptical reactions:

"If the Skylon sounds like an impossible dream...  that’s because it probably is. “It looks great from a science fiction standpoint, but it’s really, really tough to do,” says John Hansman, the head of MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation. “Even if you can get the engine to work, it’s extremely challenging to get the entire airplane design to work.”

"The costs are astronomical, too....  “Just to do a run-of-the-mill, state-of-the-art subsonic aircraft engine, you’re talking a $1 billion bill,” says Stephen Trimble, an editor at the industry publishing site Flightglobal. “It’s really hard to see that unfolding in the next seven or eight years.

Once again, the future as simply too expensive for us to afford. Too risky an investment.

Interesting, in re. the Entrepreneurial State / David Graeber arguments about the role of public investment and long-term mindset in innovation, that SABRE/Skylon is a collaboration between the public sector and private investors. In other words, capitalism on its own would never develop such a spectacular, reality-rearranging technology.

The Slate piece is also interesting on the history of Concorde (a spectacular achievement, financially a huge flop) and on similar rival supersonic aircraft and son-of-Concorde schemes...

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