Paintings of British Spaceplane MUSTARD

This is awesome. It’s another couple of piccies from the SF art page, 70sscifiart, and it’s one of the entries for the 18th June 2017. They’re illustrations from a book on space about the MUSTARD spaceplane, a reusable space vehicle designed in 1964 by the British Aerospace Corporation. The scientists and engineers, who designed it realised that it was wasteful and expensive to build rockets that would last only for a single mission, before being mostly discarded.

Their solution, MUSTARD, effectively consists of three spaceplanes linked together. There’s the main craft, which flies into space, and two supporting planes, which serve to provide fuel to the main craft, helping it reach orbital velocity. When their fuel was used up, they broke away from the main plane, and flew back to Earth.

I first came across the MUSTARD project in an issue of the space/ science fiction magazine New Voyager back in the early 80s. This described the project, and interviewed some of the scientists and engineers involved. I think the problem with it is that it was probably far too far ahead of its time. I can remember reading that they estimated that the vehicle would start breaking even after 50 journeys. Now, looking at the economics of the space shuttle, that’s probably acceptable today. The only way the Space Shuttle remained competitive compared to the other launch vehicles developed by the Russians, the Europeans, India, China and Japan is because its subsidized by the American government. If you left it to market forces, it’d be uncompetitive. It’s another example of the way market forces are absolutely wonderful, but only so long as they don’t hurt big business and the ‘national interest’.

There were also probably political reasons for its cancellation as well. Britain at the time was also developing its own space rocket, Black Arrow, which successfully launched a satellite into space in 1975, to date the only British satellite that’s been launched by a British rocket. At the time Britain was involved in a European project to build a space rocket, with various stages built by the French, British and Germans. All of the other stages were failures with the exception of the British, and the project eventually fell apart. The civil servants in charge of British space research did not feel that there was a sufficient market to support an independent British rocket launcher, and instead decided that we’d piggy-back on the Americans.

The French, on the other hand, persevered, and developed their massive successful Ariane rocket, which is actually much more economical and performs better than the US space shuttle did. Which shows how farsighted the French can be when it comes to developing new technologies. Unlike our politicos, who seem to want to get everything cheap from someone else.

Tragically, the space shuttle was beset with problems, which resulted in a series of horrific catastrophes. The best known of these is probably the Challenger disaster, which led to the programme being suspended for years while the Shuttle was being examined and redesigned. Then there was that terrible incident a few years ago where the Shuttle exploded just when it was re-entering the atmosphere, breaking up over the US. This has led to the Shuttle being cancelled, and America reliant for manned spaceflight on the Russians.

I don’t doubt that the design for MUSTARD was sound, and it would have been way ahead of the other competing spacecraft if it had been built. Unfortunately, economics, politics and the will to do it weren’t there.

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5 Responses to “Paintings of British Spaceplane MUSTARD”

  1. Florence Says:

    There was also the UK Hotel design too, I think? Those were the days when we produced great engineers as well as actually making stuff. The days of being our best in science and engineering was of course a direct output of universal access to education, ie investment in people and industry. (Plus there was a much greater overall respect in all countries for science and engineering.) Being a lucky beneficiary of an early PhD scheme to match industrial and govt science funding

  2. Florence Says:

    (Oops that should have read Hotol! ) that seemed so forward looking, and I developed a life long interest in metals and materials and microbiology in extreme environments. Engineers were working at labs in nationalised industries and these were great times for secure funding and secure jobs. There was time to think and use the one thing people rarely credit research scientists with – active imaginations! These early space proposals were in that greater scheme of things, it all seemed to be do-able. It seems impossible that more than 50 years on we have not progressed further. The latest “UFO” flap in California a few days ago were caused apparently by the launch of the Elon Musk vehicle with its reusable stages, but that technology relies on the spent parts falling to the sea to be retrieved for reuse. How much more elegant the 3 stage Mustard system, working in relays. But at least there is some progress.

    • Beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Florence – that’s really fascinating! I’ve blogged about HOTOL here. I’ve even got one of the fabric patches for the space plane, along with those for a few other spacecraft. I think HOTOL died the death because they had problems sorting out the air-breathing engine. But from what they’ve said on a documentary a year or two ago, those problems have been solved. HOTOL’s the ancestor of the Skylon spaceplane that’s due to begin service in just a few years’ time. Here’s hoping it happens!

      And I remember the immense optimism of those years of space research, back in the 1970s and early 80s, before Thatcherism really decimated academic science in this country. It really did seem that within a decade humanity would expand out to the Moon, and then the other planets of our solar system. It would have been incredible to us then that by this time we would still really be no further on in crewed space travel than we were with Apollo.

      I’m not surprised that the Elon Musk rocket caused a UFO flap in California. A lot of the UFO sightings that went round Russia were due to secret launches from the Baikonur launch centre.

      As for scientists having imagination – that’s exactly what my membership of the British Interplanetary Society taught. I’ve allowed it to lapse, but while I was a member what came across was the sheer power of the imaginations of the scientists and engineers, who wrote for it and had technical papers published in their Journal. I’m not good at Maths, and with some of the papers I can just about understand it, while on others I really have no chance, and rely on the verbal explanation. But reading them taught me just how fascinating Maths can be in designing spacecraft, or modelling the orbits of planets.

      This is now making me nostalgic for Johnny Ball’s ‘Think of a Number’. This was a children’s show in the 1970s to help them with Maths. I don’t think it made me better at it, but I watched it because Ball was a very good presenter, who was able to talk about Maths and science in an entertaining way, with his own brand of crazy humour. But he introduced a generation of kids to things like the Fibonacci series, the Golden Mean, and the weird visual paradoxes of Max Escher.

      • Florence Says:

        Oh, indeed. There were so many ideas that could have been developed but there simply wasn’t the desire for (government) investment through the Thatcher years. It all became about salable technical product, and not blue skies and fundamental science. However, its not all been bad – I used to teach chemistry, including photo science (colour chemistry and photo-sensitive reactions using films, gels etc) and that’s just soooo last century now!

        There have been UFO flaps in Russia and California this week, attributable to rocket launches, but what has been pointed out is that the four main players in space (China, Japan, Russia and USA) all launched in a four day window over Christmas to put up nearly 20 new satellites, none of which had been pre announced. This has lead space watchers to wonder – what is going on? Why the sudden rush? If nothing else it has caused a lot of chatter about space, and I hope that our younger generations get the bug we did in the early days of space exploration, and take it to the next level. I do worry that the teaching profession is now being decimated in the UK, and the syllabus so restricted we will fail to educate and enthuse our next generation of mathematicians, engineers, etc, especially with the disastrous effects of Brexit on research.

      • Beastrabban Says:

        You’re not the only scientist, who’s complained about the Thatcherite attitude towards science being all about what products you could develop for industry. I’ve heard and read a number of British researchers complaining about how Thatcher’s insistence that the science departments of the universities should work with industry has meant the end of free academic research, and turned them into the tools of big business.

        Very interesting to read your comments on the launch of 20 new satellites by America, Russia, China and Japan. This sounds to me very much like military intelligence satellites. Interestingly, a found a book on such satellites going as far as the 1970s in Waterstone’s in Cheltenham, published by Haynes. Well, if they can publish manuals of the Death Star from Star Wars…

        As for the way science and engineering, or indeed any subject at all is being taught, the Tories have managed to convince me that they want to grind every ounce of joy from learning. Instead of being about education in the broadest sense of the term – about giving the citizens of the future a wide field of knowledge so they themselves are not only useful citizens, but also grow as people – it seems instead to be all about passing grades and hard work. I am not blaming the teachers. They strive hard to make the teaching interesting and stimulating, as you can easily find out by talking to one of them or doing a teaching assistant course. But the morons in the Department of Education, like Michael Gove, seem determined to make it as restrictive and as uninspiring as possible. This comes from people, who because of their background, are guaranteed a top job no matter how stupid they are. Like Gove and Johnson.

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