GLASGOW, Scotland — The British government has agreed to invest 60 million British pounds ($91 million) in a company developing an air-breathing rocket engine, a senior government official said July 16.

At a press briefing and a subsequent address to the U.K. Space Conference here, British Science Minister David Willetts said the investment, to occur in two tranches in the coming two years, should be sufficient to encourage the private sector to complete the financing needed for the company, Reaction Engines, to develop a prototype in 2017.

Alan Bond, founder of Abingdon, Britain-based Reaction Engines and currently its managing director, said the company will use the government’s commitment to seek the 180 million pounds in additional funds needed to develop a prototype of the Synthetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, SABRE.

Willetts could not resist a mild dig at the European Space Agency (ESA), saying the agency is once again embroiled in a dispute between France and Germany over how to proceed with the Ariane rocket series. Addressing ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who spoke at the conference just after the minister, Willetts said:

“Ariane is a reliable and effective conventional launch system. But the world is changing and we want to see Britain at the forefront of the next generation of launch and propulsion technologies.”

Reaction Engines has been pursuing its idea of a spaceplane that would separate oxygen from air, cool it and use it as fuel for both suborbital flight and missions to low Earth orbit, for more than two decades.

The company has received an initial endorsement of its key work on a high-speed heat exchanger from the 20-nation ESA, which was called in to validate the work.

Constantinos Stavrinidis, head of ESA’s mechanical engineering department, said the SABRE engine holds enormous promise but that it will take time to carry the work through to a prototype and flight demonstrator.

Stavrinidis said Willetts’ office had sent a small team of experts to ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, Netherlands, to ask detailed technical questions about the status of the SABRE engine in advance of the government’s decision to make the investment.

“I have rarely seen such thorough questioning by a ministerial team,” Stavrinidis said. “Lots of governments talk about innovation, but Minister Willetts is actually promoting it with investment. Look, the government could have made a symbolic investment of 5 million pounds. Instead, they decided to come in with a large sum of money.”

In his speech, Willetts said Britain mistakenly let the United States purchase rights to a British turbojet engine in the 1940s “and sealed America’s entry into the jet age” by letting an exciting new technology “slip through our fingers.”

“This time the government is certainly not prepared to lose the engine technology that could revolutionize access to space,” Willetts said.

During the press briefing, Willetts said the British government has no intention of preventing Reaction Engines from being purchased by a non-British company at some point if that makes sense for the company.

But he said his goal is to be sure that, should that day arise, Reaction Engines will have “put down roots” in Britain that are deep enough to guarantee a long-term technology presence even if the formal ownership of the company were to change.

In a separate presentation here, Bond said the company has been 85 percent funded so far by ESA and other government agencies, and 15 percent by wealthy individuals. He said he never imagined that raising funds would be so hard, or take so long.

He said he came up with the original work on the SABRE engine when he was 38 years old. He is now 68. “That’s how difficult it is” to raise money on a new technology, he said. “And I was told today that this is not the end of the process; it’s just the end of the beginning.”

Some investors, Bond said, were persuaded to come forward once ESA had delivered its initial favorable impression of the basic SABRE technologies following several months of study in 2010. ESA in turn grew more confident about the company when it learned of backing by well-regarded individuals.

In a complaint that will resonate with many entrepreneurs, Bond said there must be a more efficient use of engineers’ time than to have them continually search for funding. 


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.