Space tourism flights could blast off from Scotland under government plans to overhaul the space regulatory regime.
Willetts, launching a consultation on the UK Space Agency’s strategy for 2011-15, said the Government was working to “tackle the burden of regulation” surrounding space activity, which had “grown up almost by chance” and “without a coherent overview”.
“We have started the process of starting to rationalise our regulation so as to enable Britain to be an effective competitor in the space scene,” he said.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial “spaceline”, began test flights last year on craft designed to rocket passengers at 3,000mph to an altitude of 70 miles.
More than 410 people have placed deposits of at least £20,000 for the flights, which could begin to take off from Spaceport America, New Mexico, in the next two years.
The government proposals would clear the way for such flights to take off from RAF Lossiemouth.
“Space planes” such as those in development by Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines could, in the longer term, lift off from any UK airport.
Willetts said it would be “great to see vehicles being launched from the UK again - to see Virgin Galactic launched from Lossiemouth, for example”.
“The Reaction Engines project would be another candidate we hope might benefit from our new regime for novel space vehicles.”
Willetts could not give an exact timetable for changing regulation but said: “We’re already talking to Virgin Galactic. I think it’s fair to say Richard Branson is very pleased with the way through, so now we’re going to have to work through the detail. I hope we can have the new regime ready in good time.
“There should be no regulatory obstacle for him to operate from the UK if he decides to do that as his own commercial decision.
“In terms of persuading the Treasury of the importance of this, the fact that an excellent launch site would be RAF Lossiemouth, in or close to the constituency of Danny Alexander, is something I shamefully explain to him at every opportunity.”
Willetts also vowed to reform the Outer Space Act to introduce an upper limit on third party liability of UK satellite operators.
The UK Space Agency’s strategy consultation opens today, to coincide with it officially coming into being as an executive agency.
Willetts said the government had demonstrated its commitment to the space sector and had signed a memorandum of understanding with India on co-operation, especially on satellite programmes which could see UK satellites launched in India.
The science minister defended the government’s level of funding for the space sector, which saw an extra £10 million earmarked in the budget, compared to its European counterparts.
“The total budget we're talking about here is £240 million. The British way of doing these things is going to be different from the continental model. What we have got is a nimble industry; very commercial, highly responsive,” he said.
Andy Green, co-chair of the Space Leadership Council, said: “We are going to get outspent by the Brazilians, the Indians and some of our neighbours. But we can be smarter.”