A disembodied jet engine, attached to a hulking air vent, sits in an outdoor test facility at the Culham Science Center in Oxfordshire, England. When the engine screams to life, columns of steam billow from the vent, giving the impression of an industrial smokestack. Engineer Alan Bond sees something more futuristic. “We’re looking at a revolution in transportation,” he says. For Bond, the engine represents the beginning of the world’s first fully reusable spaceship, a new kind of craft that promises to do what no space-faring vehicle ever has: offer reliable, affordable, and regular round-trip access to low Earth orbit.
Bond and the engineers at Reaction Engines, the aerospace company he founded with two colleagues in 1989, refer to the future craft as the Skylon. The vehicle would have a fuselage reminiscent of the Concorde and take off like a conventional airliner, accelerate to Mach 5.2, and blast out of the atmosphere like a rocket. On the return trip, Skylon would touch down on the same runway it launched from.