SCIENTISTS have said they are on the verge of turning science fiction into reality after inventing a plane that could revolutionise space travel.

After years of working in their living rooms and moonlighting to keep afloat, inventors at Reaction Engines, which designs space propulsion systems, based in Culham, said their Skylon spaceplane could be flown within five years and enter orbit for the first time by 2017.

The vehicle, which is designed to take off and land on airport runways, could one day carry tourists and scientists for trips into space.

If the Skylon is built, engineer Alan Bond, 66, said it could revolutionise space travel.

This week, the company will present its designs to 100 space experts at a two-day workshop at Harwell’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

If it is launched, Britain would become the first country in the world to launch a spaceplane into orbit.

Mr Bond said: “We are going to prove it works, it is feasible, and that it is the next stage of space transport.

“Space travel is about to undergo the same transition that flight did when First World War bombers were replaced by modern aviation.

“I see Skylon as the equivalent of the first commercial aircraft. We are leading the way, and there is no-one even in our dust trail at the moment.”

The plane’s two jet engines suck hydrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere, to fire it 18 miles into the sky at five times the speed of sound.

Then the engines use stored oxygen as rocket fuel to power it into outer space.

For more than a decade, Mr Bond and colleagues Richard Varvill and John Scott-Scott took on second jobs to keep them afloat as they worked in their living rooms to perfect the Skylon’s engine and solve endless technical problems.

It was only in 2001, 16 years after they started work, that they attracted investment to start experiments at Culham’s Science Centre.

To date, £10 m has been spent on designing the spaceplane, but manufacture could cost £7.5bn. Each of the 270ft-long Skylons could cost £700m.

Mr Bond said: “My vision is of scientists leaving the airport on a Monday morning, going to an international space station, and then coming back on Friday.

“That is currently in the realm of science fiction because it costs so much to put people up there, but it would be quite easy to do.”

The spaceplane would cost just £6.5m per launch, compared to £97m for a rocket.

Mr Bond added: “There has never been a year in my life that I have not been driven by space. As a child, I was motivated a lot by shows like Journey Into Space on radio, and the film Destination Moon.

“I remember being disappointed at the moon landings, because I wanted to be the first man on the moon and somebody had beaten me to it!”