Uncertainty in the U.K.


Cornwall Airport Newquay would like to become Spaceport Cornwall. Credit: Spaceport newquay artist’s concept

Despite a late spring push from England’s Queen Elizabeth II and both houses of Parliament, how, where and when the U.K. will build its own commercial spaceports remain up for debate. In fact, it’s still far from certain the U.K. will ever host regular spaceflights, either involving spaceplanes or vertically launched rockets.

Consider: the U.S. has licensed 10 commercial spaceports to date, but only two — Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base — are heavily utilized and just two more, Kodiak and Wallops, have hosted orbital launches. And that’s in a country with an established launch industry.

Currently, only a handful of government-selected sites remain as potential British spaceports, including three airports in Scotland as well as Llanbedr Airfield in Wales and Newquay Cornwall Airport in England’s southwest. However, any spaceport’s first criteria is that they lie far from heavily populated areas, are in a coastal location, and not in the way of normal air traffic routes.

Unlike more desolate regions of the U.S. or Australia, if U.K. space planners want to profit from local spaceports, they are inherently constrained by the limited geography of the British Isles.

What’s more, the U.K. government’s decision to not select a single spaceport, as originally planned, but instead allow several spaceport projects means that this burgeoning launch market may become diluted before it begins to get off the ground.

And although it appears that Brexit will have little effect on such long-term strategies, even British policy makers are not certain whether the U.K.’s recent break with the European Union will impact commercial space ventures inside the U.K.

Still, U.K. commercial space advocates think there’s hope that the U.K. will not only host suborbital spaceplanes, but eventually launch commercial and scientific payloads into polar orbit from sites currently under consideration in coastal Scotland. Launch sites at such high northern latitudes would arguably provide the U.K. with a leg up in reaching polar orbits.

Despite the challenges, the idea of U.K. spaceports seems to be catching on. During the Farnborough Air Show last week outside London, Britain doled out $2 million worth of feasibility-study contracts to five industrial teams that want to operate commercial orbital or suborbital launchers from British territory. One of the recipients, Orbital Access, separately announced a cooperative agreement with Scotland’s Glasgow Prestwick Spaceport and XCOR Aerospace, the Mojave, California, firm that recently laid off nearly half its staff and said it was suspending work on its Lynx suborbital spaceplane.

With the number of would-be spaceports multiplying as fast as would-be launchers, do any of them have a shot?

“Even if the market itself is seen as limited in nature, having competing offerings addressing the same market is not unusual,” said Stuart Martin, chair of the advisory group tasked with helping develop future U.K. spaceports. “The key thing is to ensure that the market is allowed to function freely then consolidation or other rationalization will sort things out.”

And in the long run, said Greg Sadlier, head of aerospace at London Economics, Ltd. a cluster of space organizations may end up fueling a sufficiently high demand for launches to support multiple U.K. Sites.

As for Brexit, Sadlier says it will neither make nor break the business case for a proposed U.K. spaceport. But as for so many industries relying on inputs from outside the U.K., it is safe to say that it is not a terribly positive development.

Sadlier also says Brexit would likely spell more bureaucratic red tape for European customers wishing to export payloads to the U.K. for launch. Brexit could also pose an issue for Scottish spaceport development, if it results in a renewed push for Scottish independence.

But determining that kind of fallout is still premature. Mostly, U.K. space industry leaders are waiting to see how a new transportation bill will play out this year.

Addressing Parliament in May, Queen Elizabeth II noted the importance of the transportation in facilitating spaceport development, paving the way for commercial spaceflight awhile boosting the U.K.’s satellite industry.

“The transport modernization bill is the vehicle through which all the enabling legislation will be managed,” said Martin. “But I wouldn’t want to get into the game of predictions as to what [its] eventual outcomes might be.”

Martin, however, did say that is only natural that U.K. spaceports will be distributed geographically, with successful companies operating from more than one location.

“Clearly not all will succeed, but it seems likely that ease of access and breadth of offering beyond the flight itself will become increasingly important, especially as the industry matures and the price points lower,” said Martin.

Martin refused to comment on which sites had the best chance of coming to fruition, but he did say that he wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of routine suborbital capability was available before 2020. “The natural next step then would be for vertical launches into polar orbits, with space planes and tourism following sometime behind,” said Martin.