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The Spacefleet Project – An Interview about Never Giving Up

Published by Rob on Wed Jan 9, 2008 8:46 pm
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With the New Year well underway I may be mistaken into believing that there is an air of anticipation falling upon the commercial space community. With Virgin Galactic unveiling their new designs this month 2008 seems to be a massive year for the commercial space scene.

Under all of the flashy videos and enthusiasm that we get from most companies we can sometimes forget just how hard it is to succeed. There are countless organisations being setup to fall short before they even get real flight hardware in the air. Most of these companies rely heavily on donations and sponsorship. They don’t have the giant funds that some of the now “Big Players” seem to have found.

I remember talking to David Ashford of Bristol Spaceplanes (BSP) last year. David mentioned how much of an impact funding had been; in an ISF article he described how with funding he could expect to have a craft ready within a couple of years.

I recently got into a discussion with Ray Wright, the CEO of The Spacefleet Project. Ray setup his company in 2004 with a view to developing a project to design, build and sell a craft for space tourism, their design is called the SF-01.

The SF-01 is a titanium-built lifting body, carrying two pilots and up to eight passengers up to a maximum height above the Earth of around 340km. A lower apogee would be sacrificed for greater cross-range capability. The vehicle is to be powered by four LOX/LH2 engines of four combustion chambers each, in which some of the fuel is pre-combusted to provide drive for turbo-pumps and a gaseous inlet for oxygen to a vortex-type combustion, designed to minimise heating of the combustion chamber. Hydrogen would be injected into a cooling jacket around the combustion chambers and expansion nozzles. The overall effect would be engines of high reliability and longevity. Individual combustion chambers and other engine components on the vehicle would be compartmentalised for extra safety.

So where is the project now? Ray tells me about the recent progress of the project, he says “Since setting up the company and defining the project, I have been joined by four other directors, and we have built up a sizeable network of contacts amongst the space launch and aerospace communities. For instance, I’ve been contacted by a test pilot, an aviation safety engineer and numerous aerospace and rocket propulsion engineers.” As with BSP financing the project seems to be the main issue, again the bottleneck for progress. Asked about the costs and finance situation Ray tells me “Sadly, we have not been able to make contact with someone who is prepared to invest the substantial amounts of cash that would be needed to make the project a reality. On reflection, over the last few years, it is not so surprising. Those millionaires and billionaires who have an interest in space flight are free to make their own arrangements and just hire the guys they need to get their own projects built. They don’t need a ready-made project from someone else, I’d guess. That is what Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson have done. I have, at least, in 2007 got to within two degrees of separation from people who had serious money. One cannot contact such people directly. They have to find out about the project and come to us.

With recent interest in NASA’s COTS readers may remember back in 2006 ESA offered a contract for commercial space tourism. The only winner from this was the UK based Starchaser Industries lead by Steve Bennett. In fact another UK based organisation also went for this, Ray tells me “I got a little consortium together to make a bid for the European Space Agency offer of a contract to define a space vehicle, worth €150,000. Three contracts were to be offered, but the Spacefleet Consortium was not fortunate. In fact, only one contract was offered, to Starchaser.”

Looking for other ways to finance a commercial space travel project Ray decided to setup the Spacefleet Club, with the intention of using membership subscriptions to raise enough money. Ray tells me that membership is far too small for that, so far. Ray also says to create a good deal for the members they would promise the members a pay-back on eventual success. These methods are somewhat slow though in raising enough money for real progress. Ray later tells me he has resigned himself to not finding a major backer. “I’m setting about getting into the space business the slow way, by building up a business from scratch, and growing it over many years.”

Space enthusiasts and especially Space Fellowship members may remember a team called Space Transport Corp. In fact they held a forum at the Space Fellowship with the President Phil Storm moderating and chatting with members. Their Rubicon-1was destroyed on takeoff, after the rocket was destroyed Ray supplied the funds they needed ($25,000) to build Rubicon-2, also buying a share in the company. However Ray explains “In the event, they had rocket engine troubles and then the X-Prize was won by Burt Rutan, but things could have turned out differently. If they had, you would have heard about Spacefleet Ltd a lot earlier!

Speaking with Ray reminds me of the perils and loss that come hand in hand with commercial and Governmental space access. Ray explained to me how he had always dreamed about being an astronaut but had given up as becoming a US citizen and joining NASA seemed too much of a long shot. One could expect that as the industry develops we may see prices dropping to a level where more organisations can truly be competitive. The current environment is non-forgiving on companies lacking funds however The Spacefleet project is still alive and active!

Perhaps with a bit of luck and some new funding teams like this will be flying in the stars within a few years. It is clear that the passion to get into space is ripe amongst citizens across the globe. Let’s hope that 2008 gives a few more organisations that bit of luck needed to grab worldwide attention and achieve the final frontier.

Please feel free to visit them at http://www.spacefleet.org.uk/

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