A distinct lack of desert for rockets to blast-off from puts the UK at something of a geographical disadvantage when it comes to space travel. That’s reflected in its attempts to launch a space programme, which have never gone well. One programme in the 1960s and 1970s, which yielded rockets that sounded more like villains from a Marvel comic than feats of engineering (Blue Streak and Black Arrow) but only one successful satellite launch, led the government to conclude that hitching a ride with Nasa and the European Space Agency were more cost-effective ways to put satellites into space.
This did little to dampen the enthusiasm of Philippa Davies, recently appointed as head of engineering at Reaction Engines, however. Davies was blunt about why she went to study aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton: “I wanted to be an astronaut,” she told me.
Davies has worked her way up through the company, having started as a turbomachinery engineer in 2012. She said she has worked on “various bits on different products”, but that her new role revolved around a more hands-off responsibility to “make sure people are equipped to do their jobs and innovate”.
With a cascade of blonde hair and an air of quiet calm, the 35-year-old Davies is a marked change from her predecessor, the engineer Alan Bond, who kept the British dream of a spaceplane alive through many lean years. Bond, the founder of Reaction Engines, was a veteran of the Blue Streak programme who spent more than 30 years attempting to create a spaceplane he called Skylon, capable of flying from the Earth’s atmosphere into space and back.
When I interviewed Bond in 2011 he explained why the Hotol (“horizontal take-off and landing”) concept made more sense than the hugely expensive and wasteful rockets still used by other private space companies. According to one researcher at University College London, the typical rocket launch emits about 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and emissions from the industry are increasing nearly 5.6 per cent a year. Although Bond retired in 2017, he is still involved in the company. “His name is still on the door – I share an office with him,” said Davies.
Skylon has yet to take to the skies – but Reaction Engines is thriving. It has expanded from 50 people to 200, and has moved across the science park where it is headquartered in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, from a squat one-storey “shed” to a larger network of offices, workshops and labs. In a cavernous workshop-cum-hangar around the back of the company’s offices sits a vacuum furnace that can replicate conditions in space, testing products at 1,200°C and at less than one ten-billionth of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Like many innovative British companies, Reaction Engines uses the engineering it develops in pursuit of its goal to make money along the way. “It makes sense that we would explore high-speed flight opportunities, both military and commercial,” said Davies.
Although Skylon still adorns its marketing material, the company is now working on applying the technologies it developed to power the plane – such as thermal management – to more terrestrial uses, in sectors including motorsport (there is a hint the company works with more than one team, although no one will disclose which ones), aerospace, electric vehicles and energy.
Davies said the fact that the company is aiming for the stars improves what it does on the ground. “Our heat exchanger technology turns out to be world-leading, and it’s really lightweight because we’ve [created] it for space applications,” she explained.
But space is still very much the goal. Like Bond, Davies began her career at Rolls-Royce, before moving on to Reaction Engines. While she agreed that “SpaceX is clearly doing something really exciting,” Davies said her company is looking further ahead, to “the technology for the next generation, that’s going to be able to cater for this huge new space economy”.
Skylon, she said, is a very different prospect to the two-stage rockets used by SpaceX and Blue Origin: “A more aircraft-like operation that goes from a runway all the way to space and back, keeping all its parts together.”
“It’s sort of the holy grail,” she said. “A single stage to orbit vehicle. That concept is still… relevant for the markets in the future.”
But Davies said the company’s ambitions have also turned towards a more pressing challenge. At Cop26, it announced plans for small reactors that “crack” ammonia into hydrogen gas, creating a low-carbon fuel system for hard-to-decarbonise industries like shipping and aviation. Davies said the decision to apply Reaction’s technologies to improving earthly sustainability has shifted her own ambitions.
“Our technologies span across all these things that I didn’t expect when I first joined this company,” she said. “I want to play my part in being able to do something that’s going to be meaningful and helpful to society.”