Update (October 11, 2010)
Another article about Reaction Engines Ltd.'s Skylon:
"Airplanes in Space?"
Irene Klotz, Space News, Discovery News (October 11, 2010)
"Skylon" is the name of a tower near Niagara Falls and an Ott album.
It's also what Reaction Engines Ltd. calls their spaceplane.
"The Skylon Vehicle"
Reaction Engines Limited - Projects - Skylon - Overview
"Skylon is an unpiloted, reuseable spaceplane intended to provide inexpensive and reliable access to space. Currently in proof-of-concept phase, the vehicle will take approximately 10 years to develop and will be capable of transporting 12 tonnes of cargo into space...."
I've seen promising single-stage-to-orbit designs before, like the Delta Clipper or X-33/Venture Star, which ran out of funding, or into technical barriers. It's possible that Skylon will be making regular flights in ten years.
Spacecraft which take off, land, and fly again, have been around for decades. The Space Shuttle is the working example. McDonnell Douglas' Delta Clipper flew 12 times between 1993 and 1996, showing that spacecraft can be flown over and over, with a small ground crew: the same as commercial aircraft.
In my opinion, we'd have next-generation Delta Clippers making routine freight runs now, if it weren't for
- A crash landing and fire that severely damaged the prototype
- An exciting new technology - the linear aerospike - which attracted funding away from the Delta Clipper, to the X-33
- Which never flew
When, or if, Skylon flies, it will be big: 82 meters (269 ft) long, with a 25 meter (82 ft) wingspan and a fuselage 6.25 meters (20.5 ft) across. If it looks vaguely familiar, it should: its profile is similar to the old SR-71 Blackbirds.
"SKYLON Spaceplane: Mission Animation"
SpaceRenaissance, YouTube (August 4, 2010)
"SKYLON is the successor to Britain's HOTOL spaceplane concept, being developed by Reaction Engines Ltd (REL). It is an unpiloted fully reusable aircraft-like vehicle capable...."
Credits: Reaction Engines Ltd.
Background"What is the Skylon Spaceplane?"
"The Skylon spaceplane is a proposal by Reaction Engines Limited — a British company based in Oxfordshire — to build an orbital launch vehicle which could take off from a conventional runway, accelerate to Mach 5.5 using a turbojet engine, then close its air intake, switch operation to that of a rocket engine, and accelerate to typical orbital speed of Mach 23. ..."
"In order for people to be able to travel economically to space, for space tourism and for other purposes, we need reusable launch vehicles. All commercial transport industries use reusable vehicles - and so will the commercial space transport industry...."
James Schombert, Department of Physics, University of Oregon Eugene
"In the beginning, nobody (except Jules Verne) thought anybody would be travelling to space and back in ballistic cannon balls. The only proper way for a space voyager to return to earth was at the controls of a real winged airplane...."
- "Blue Origin: Into Space in a Flying Gumdrop"
(December 10, 2008)