Was Reaction Engines A UK Black Project?
The answer to achieving the high speeds necessary to do this lies with the design of a precooler that super-cools the air as it enters the engine chamber to prevent air friction from effectively melting the aircraft from the inside out.
A caption on Reaction Engine's website says:
Unlike jet engines, which are only capable of powering a vehicle up to Mach 3, three times the speed of sound, SABRE engines are capable of Mach 5.4 in air-breathing mode, and Mach 25 in rocket mode for space flight. They are simply going to revolutionise the way we travel around the globe, and into orbit. Like jet engines, SABRE can be scaled in size to provide different levels of thrust for different applications which is crucial to our success - it's going to enable a whole generation of air and space vehicles.
I've been closely watching the progress being made by Reaction Engines over the last four or five years and last week there was some promising news that the development of Reaction Engines' SABRE (Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine) is getting closer to a full test. After the successful ground testing of the pre-cooler technology on a F4 Phantom engine earlier this year, they're now looking to move to flight tests with their main partner Rolls Royce, who plan to install their precooler onto a Eurofighter. The potential for this technology if it works could be groundbreaking, and may finally allow regular, cheap access to space that could lead to missions more in line with where we arguably should be given the fifty year anniversary of the lunar landings.
But Is This Really New Technology?This might sounds like a strange question but the initial design of the SABRE engine by Reaction Engine's founder Alan Bond, was once known by a different name; the Swallow. This 1980s project was called HOTOL (horizontal take off and landing), and like the current Reaction Engine's Skylon project, was meant to provide a means of providing space launching capability for the UK and its European partners. Intriguingly the MoD's research and development department deputy controller James Barnes, named Alan Bond as the holder of a secret patent in 1985, so there certainly seems something quite odd about Bond now fronting Reaction Engines years later.
|Artist's impression of what the HOTOL would have looked like.|
By 1989 HOTOL had officially been scrubbed, firstly over concerns that it would be no cheaper than traditional rocket technology and secondly because of political issues arising from some of the UK's ESA partners, namely France, who were keen to support its own Hermes space shuttle programme which was also axed due to cost concerns in 1992. The political situation with the UK at that point with it about to be brought into the European Union in 1993, meant the Government was reluctant to irritate its European partners and allow American access to the technology despite their enthusiastic interest in the technology.
HOTOL was doomed to fail, the MoD wouldn't officially allow a joint partnership with the Americans, yet finding funds to carry on the work was impossible because neither the UK Government nor Rolls Royce were willing to pay for the development. Unofficially, there are rumours that there may have been negotiations going on behind the scenes between Rolls Royce and Rocketdyne, the American company that produced the engines for NASA's Saturn rockets and the now retired spaceshuttle fleet which may be of relevance for reasons we'll discuss shortly.
In 1985 there was a lot of communications going between the British and Americans on trading technologies and data with regards to supersonic flight with American teams saying a flying prototype utilising the HOTOL technology could be flying as early as 1990s. The UK on the other hand in released reports suggested a more leisurely pace, expecting it would be ready around the 2020s.
There are two ways we can go into this subject in terms of conspiracy theories. Firstly, Reaction Engines' SABRE which was founded by the original designer of HOTOL, would seem almost certainly an attempt to put HOTOL's development into the private sector or perhaps get around secrecy clauses from previous official secrets. I say conspiracy theory like there's any other explanation, but if this wasn't something agreed by the government then I doubt the UK would have poured financial investment in or allowed BAE to partner up with them.
Secondly and perhaps more controversially, the development of HOTOL in the mid-80s and the rumoured unofficial US-UK technology trading sound very suspicious if we take into consideration the UFO phenomenon ranging from the 1990s until the 2000s, the unexplained sonic booms from all over the UK and talk of hypersonic aircraft from suspected skunk works teams like the now well-known Aurora, which has become something akin to legend.
In this 2006 report by Flight Global, it mentions triangular shaped crafts capable of hypersonic speeds of up to Mach 6. Speaking about a BBC report made in the mid-2000s, it says:
UK broadcaster BBC picked through the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK Air Defence Region report, written between 1996-2000 by a Ministry of Defence intelligence expert and kept secret until last month. The broadcaster's showcase television news analysis programme Newsnight claims that although released under the country's freedom of information act, parts that remain censored lend credibility to claims that the US military has developed a cryogenic fuel-powered successor to the SR-71 Blackbird supersonic jet.
Hypersonic, cryogenic engines that were being tested in the mid-nineties? How odd! That sounds precisely the sort of time frame that was given by the US in the HOTOL negotiations!
Covert Cover Up?
If we assume then that there was some sort secret joint British-American technology trading going on in the 1990s this may explain a strange story that occurred at the British RAF airbase Boscombe Down in September of 1994. Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, found just a few miles east of Stonehenge is the RAF's aircraft test facility which makes this story even more interesting...
The conspiracy theory surrounding Boscombe is that an aircraft either on take off or landing crashed in an adjacent field during the night and prompted a somewhat excessive response by the armed forces. Helicopters known to be associated with either the SAS or SBS were scrambled to provide security on site and the wreckage was stored in the back of a hanger until it was supposedly collected by an American C5 transport aircraft and taken back to Palmdale in California where perhaps unsurprisingly if the conspiracy theory is true, is the site of Lockheed's Skunk Works and Northrop Grumman's research facility. The entire story is available to read at DreamlandResort, which I really suggest reading as it's very interesting.
The Independent also wrote on this event only a few years after, commenting on the possible link between the suspected Aurora black project and the crash, and also suggested a link between the strange sonic booms and aircraft flying tens of thousands of feet above normal operating ceilings over the UK and the North Sea with it too. In the Netherlands a formal investigation began into these loud sonic booms and concluded that the aircraft seemed to be coming from the now closed Scottish airbase at RAF Machrihanish. RAF Machrihanish was also a strange one whilst it was open. It had the longest of any RAF runway and is situated in the middle of nowhere on an outcrop of the Scottish Highlands, probably one of the few places suitable for black projects being run in the UK and was often a site frequented by American units, UFO sightings and suspected sonic booms. Ironically if these allegations are true, Machrihanish with its long runway is one of the few sites in the UK that is being considered for a spaceport in the future.
Skylon In The Future
Today financial and technological support for Reaction Engines comes from Rolls Royce, the ESA, BAE and the American companies like Lockheed Martin and updates about the project is reported about every few months or so internationally in the media. It seems there is nothing hidden from the public in terms of current development, but the mainstream news today does seem to represent Reaction Engines as a kind of space-tech cottage industry, a typical British a man in his shed operation, but it would seem given all the past expertise and interest from the biggest players in aeronautical companies that this is far from the case.
My suspicion would be that private companies are taking over where Governments struggle to approve their budgets. For instance there are many in America who are apprehensive about the level of tax assistance that is given to private space companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX. For the longest time I've suspected people like Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos are simply spokesmen for something else behind the curtain. If you wanted to progress humanity within the current financial system there would be few betters ways than to use people who "invented" highly successful online platforms like PayPal or Amazon in order to fund what I'd suspect are essentially governmental programmes. If the likes of Tesla (which also receives high levels of tax-free status,) or SpaceX fail to produce results then its not wasted tax money that has to be justified - however it is still our money by proxy because PayPal and Amazon have become a part of our daily lives, and by destroying all online competition they've effectively secured a very large percentage of the money being spent online.
This is less pronounced in the UK of course and Reaction Engines doesn't have some egomaniac spokesperson. It's effectively just a research company producing the cryogenic technology for Rolls Royce (something Bond was doing before he founded the company) but the beauty is that it has freed both Reaction Engines and Rolls Royce of the unnecessary political pettiness so they can concentrate on getting on with the job and procure investments from international partners who might approach them. Again as I've already asked earlier, why would the British Government have allowed Reaction Engines to continue the work of HOTOL, some of which was still classified, if it didn't secretly give Reaction Engines the green light to start with? Its just a clever way I think of taking it off the tax bill.
Admittedly the political situation is a lot different now too, NATO partners are sharing development of technology and weapons far more freely than they were in the 1980s - we only have to look at the F35 project to see how far international development has come. With Brexit looking set to go ahead, Britain's commitments to European diplomacy and the ESA that may well have held back this part of British industry may help the Skylon to fly some day soon if we embrace the support of America.
What I find interesting though is the timescales involved, here we are in 2019 with the project poised to go into flight tests, more or less bang on when the UK Government advisers said it would back in the 1980s. Hopefully then, if this is a black project that has been slowly worked on for thirty years, we won't have to wait much longer before it begins to serve humanity and bring space just that little bit closer.