The Skylon Spaceplane

One of the minor disappointments played out on this blog and precious few other places in the past two years was the failure of the airship industry to take off, as it were. I know that in this I'm past parody--I have a whole 'holiday village' somewhere beyond the satire hills of cyberspace--but I was really taken with the aeroscraft project, which has recently gone all military.

Like Victor Chernomyrdin, I hoped for the best and everything turned out as usual. Various readers sent in details of a world helium shortage. This shortage was one that probably could never be resolved. This meant that airships, and the safe, clean, no hassle and low-security fantasy of the future which I entertained, fell slightly from my mind.

However, hope springs eternal. British engineering has from time to time, and in the face of ridiculous odds, come up at various points over the past few centuries with stunning ideas. One of them that I recall, also with an aerial theme, was the HOTOL project in the 1980s, to develop a space plane.

Although designed on a shoestring compared to the bloated budgets of other space programmes, the HOTOL had the great advantage of being brilliant. So the minister for technology and trade at the time, Kenneth Clarke, obviously slapped a security order on the plans, banned the development, and presumably passed on the idea to the Americans to bury or waste.

HOTOL stands, if you'll pardon the pun, for a horizontal take-off and landing. I could name names of Queen's Counsel rumoured to behave like that, but won't.

Anyway, those pesky British engineers are back in a new environment, with the revolutionary Skylon plane. If Skylon, which I've pictured, harks back to the more hopeful moments of the 1950s, to the Festival of Britain and Dan Dare, well, great. Materials and science seem to have caught up with British dreams, and the company behind Skylon has received a huge and recession-proof wodge of money from the European Space Agency to pursue their dreams. This is all the more remarkable since, just five years ago, respectable sites were reporting the Skylon idea as another brilliant-but-going nowhere British no-hope.

Britain retains such capacity in its people. Colin Pillinger, for instance, has from time to time been pilloried as a back-of-a-beermat scientist, yet it was his Beagle project which got very close, again on a budget, to seriously looking for life on Mars a few years ago.

This Skylon project stands in a great tradition that Professor Pillinger has graced. Have a look at the websites, and dare to think of a world of Space exploration, interrupted after Blue Streak failed, that could have gone the other way and still might. And watch out for Treens.

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