“Britain in Space” – Born to Engineer talk to Photographer James Ball about documenting Britain’s thriving space industry

“Britain in Space” – Born to Engineer talk to Photographer James Ball about documenting Britain’s thriving space industry

There has never been a more exciting time for the British space industry

This is the opinion of British photographer James Ball (aka Docubyte) who has spent the last six years documenting Britain’s thriving space industry.

This week Born to Engineer caught up with Ball to discuss the project and how the industry has changed over the last few years.

“The story of Britain’s space industry has been a very sorry tale of great innovation, great engineering, great expertise and terrible marketing and generally very little support from the government”. But, explains Ball, that began to change in the late 1980s and ’90s when some small innovative companies started making use of readily available components to create cheap access to space, and in doing so made a lot of money.

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Blue Streak liquid fuel rocket engine, Rolls-Royce RZ.2. Image © Docubyte

He sees technologies being developed in Britain today, like the Reaction Engines SABRE, as more recent examples of this turn-around.

In the ’80s British Aerospace’s HOTOL (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) project looked set to be the next big leap forward for the British space industry. It was game-changing technology: an airbreathing jet engine spaceplane developed by Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The project fizzled when the government withdrew funding in 1988.

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The Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, or SABRE. A new type of rocket engine that would allow a plane to reach orbit in around 15 minutes. Image © Docubyte

While that could have been the end of the concept, its co-creator Alan Bond created Reaction Engines Limited (REL) which has been working on the Skylon vehicle ever since.

Skylon is designed to solve the problems that HOTOL was never able to overcome. It is a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane and uses SABRE (the combined-cycle, air-breathing rocket propulsion system). This new technology should allow it to be reusable for up to 200 flights.

Now, 30 years after HOTOL, it is fair to say that the project is well on track to being a British success story. Engine tests observed by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2012 were declared a success and led to the government stepping up to support the project with a £60-million investment.

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Reaction Engines tests the SABRE Engine. Image © Docubyte

“Essentially, Reaction Engines formed from engineers who had lost their jobs at British Aerospace. They have been developing the cooling system which is at the heart of Skylon, and they are now getting government investment because their technology just keeps improving”.


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When Ball started the project one thing he kept hearing was that the British space industry was going to be worth £15 billion. “But now targets are closer to £40
billion, and it just grows and grows each year.”

In 2013 James was at the UK Space Conference in Glasgow where he saw UK Science Minister David Willetts speak.

“There was such applause when he spoke,” James recalled, “people were saying that this was a sea change in the government’s attitude.”

It was the same year it was announced that Tim Peake would be the first British ESA astronaut.

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James documents a brief moment shared with Tim at the UK Space Conference 2013. Image © Docubyte

But it isn’t just the industry that has changed during the last six years.

Ball’s ‘Britain in Space’ project has always been non-commercial, designed to offer an insight into an industry. He admits that his style has “changed a quite a bit” over the years. More recent images are more like product shots than a traditional documentary style.

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An early project image of the SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd) amid the build of a new satellite. Technicians complete basic wooden mockups before the final component construction.

As well as being fascinated by the British space industry, Ball explains that he always loved the aesthetics of engineering,“the materials, products, and advertising photography”. The project was a way of “combining these interests and adding a documentary layer to them”.

His more recent images are highly polished studio shots, a photographic style usually reserved for advertising.

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The SABRE Engine – a new type of rocket engine that would allow a plane to reach orbit, release a payload, return to Earth and land on an airstrip. Image © Docubyte

So what of the future of the project and the industry? When it comes to what Brexit might mean for the British space industry James is optimistic.

“Obviously it’s a concern, but these are very long-term projects we’re talking about. It will take years for the impact of the separation from Europe to be felt on the British space industry, and while it is easy to see the worst now it might open up new possibilities with other markets in Asia and America.”

The success of the British space industry is an example of the engineering expertise Britain has to offer. It is noticeable that there are engineers who have been in the industry for decades, and are still thriving, and this is because their work has been crucial to the evolution of rocketry.

“While development of Skylon might take decades, there is a real sense of optimism that the technology first developed in the ’80s for HOTOL could be fully realised in the lifetime of the original designer. There is investment flowing in now to support it, not just from Europe, but from America too.”

You can discover more of James work on his website Docubyte.

See more James Balls work

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