27 October 2003
- Vehicles (Bad)
Concorde's Retirement and the Future of the Aerospace Industry
The public want SSTO and TSTO, not SST
by Patrick Collins
by Dr. Patrick Collins

Concorde's last flight has elicited different responses from commentators, ranging from "good riddance to a dirty, noisy, elitist white elephant" to sorrow at the passing of an ambitious dream. And certainly it raises a number of interesting issues concerning humans' progress in developing aerospace engineering capabilities.

Technologically, Concorde can be considered a success, having operated for longer than originally planned with only one fatal accident. But commercially it was a failure. With a break-even point of several hundred vehicles on two production lines, only a score were built, largely paid for by the French and British governments. People continue to argue whether the project was worth doing. The true answer depends on what future use is made of the knowledge and expertise developed through the project.

Britain and France accumulated a wealth of expertise in operating, maintaining, and marketing Concorde—the nearest thing to operating a spaceline that anyone has done to date. Consequently if this expertise is now used in a project to develop a two-stage, horizontal take-off and landing ( HTOL) passenger spaceliner—for example by following Bristol Spaceplanes programme of Ascender, Spacecab and Spacebus—it could still turn out that the expense of developing Concorde will be triumphantly vindicated. But if the development of passenger space travel were delayed for several more decades, we would have to say that the potential value of the Concorde project was mostly wasted.

Commentators have claimed that Concorde’s commercial plight only heralds the failure of vehicles designed for space tourism. Though perhaps superficially plausible, this argument ignores the results of decades of market research, which is inexcusable.

Market research, from the 1960s to the present, has shown consistently that most people do not want to buy more expensive air tickets for faster flights. Customers on long-distance flights are used to having a drink, eating a meal, and watching a movie or taking a nap before landing at their destination. Consequently there is not a large market for supersonic airliners. Concorde’s developers gambled that its market research was wrong, and it failed.

In complete contrast, market research on space tourism has shown consistently that most people say they would like to fly to space: a large proportion say they would pay several months salary to do so, and a few percent say they would pay even a year's salary or more. As with all market research there is some doubt about exactly how true it may be in practice. But it was right in the case of the Concorde, and so will it be for space tourism. People who have been to space describe it as the best experience of their lives. There are plenty of reasons for thinking this will be true for most people.

Governments today in America, Europe, and Japan still fund tens of millions of dollars worth of research on "next generation" supersonic transports (SST). And drawn on a graph, the upward trend of aviation technology—higher and faster—seems to suggest that Concorde was the next "logical" step in airliner evolution. But Concorde’s failure has proven that SST was not it. The Airbus 380, not Concorde, is the logical aviation successor to the Boeing 747: larger and more comfortable, rather than faster. In order to continue the trend towards "higher and faster" we have to cross over from air travel to space travel in order to re-engage popular demand which alone can drive business growth.

However, no government anywhere gives more than minuscule funding to research on realising space tourism. Yet space activities are currently shrinking from lack of demand, and until the space industry supplies services that the general public wants to buy, it cannot grow. Space agencies have spent nearly 1 trillion Euros over the past 40 years, and it has not reduced the cost of space travel below what it was in Gagarin's day. That, and the delay of thirty years and counting to develop a space travel industry, are some of the costs of space agencies refusing to learn the lessons of aviation, as described in this invited speech to the AAIA's Wright Brothers' Centenary Symposium in Dayton, Ohio in July.

Air and space travel are not different worlds, but closely related parts of aerospace evolution. The billions of taxpayers' Euros spent on Concorde would have been better spent on pioneering passenger space travel, but they can still be turned to valuable use if sub-orbital passenger space travel is developed now. But will policymakers realize this before the wealth of accumulated expertise disappears?
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Patrick Collins 27 October 2003
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