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Skylon spaceplane

Building Britain's gateway to space

An official report suggests that spaceplanes could be taking off from UK soil as soon as 2018. We review the plans.

When I was a lad, even British space fiction authors knew that rockets didn’t take off from the United Kingdom: they launched from somewhere in the Australian outback called Woomera. Now it seems that the UK government and its space-related agencies might be about to turn such received knowledge on its head.The announcement just prior to the 2014 Farnborough airshow that a government-backed review had identified eight potential sites for a UK spaceport could easily have been dismissed as one of those strange media stories that come up in the summer ‘silly season’. But this one was justified by a major ‘Space Day Conference’ on the second day of the airshow, attended by such luminaries as Aviation Minister Robert Goodwill, UK Space Agency CEO David Parker and ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain. Moreover, it was accompanied by the publication of a Civil Aviation Authority report entitled ‘UK government review of commercial spaceplane certification and operation’, which made it seem a bit less ‘Buck Rogers’ than tabloid headlines might have suggested.

But are we really going to see rocket gantries sprouting up across the UK’s green and pleasant land? Clearly not. If a spaceport is built, it will be positioned, like all launch sites, well away from population centres, at a coastal location and, if politicians have their way, as far away from London as possible. Indeed, the eight sites in the CAA report met all three criteria, the closest to London being Llanbedr Airport on the Welsh coast. The only other site not in Scotland was an airport in Newquay, Cornwall.

It is important to note that the eight represent only a “potential” selection that meet the basic safety, meteorological, environ­mental and infrastructure criteria stipulated by the study. Indeed, several would require runway extensions to provide the 3,000m believed necessary for spaceplane operations, while others could eventually be rejected for a multiplicity of other ‘local’ or ‘political’ reasons. But as David Parker, speaking at the Farnborough conference, was at pains to point out, this is only the first phase of the programme and other sites might be suggested later.

Of course, site selection is an important factor in the development of a spaceport, but whether or not the UK actually gets one will depend more on political will. That’s a bit difficult to gauge with a general election due in 2015, and even more so with the recent departure of de facto Space Minister David Willetts. Having been Minister for Universities and Science since May 2010 – and become the ‘darling’ of the space industry – Willetts was replaced in July by Greg Clark, MP.

That said, the fact that UK space is on a rising trajectory makes the spaceport announcement more believable than it would have been a couple of years ago. Consider the context: a 25 per cent increase in annual contributions to the European Space Agency; the inauguration of new ESA facilities and even a Lockheed Martin presence at Harwell; the appointment of Britain’s first official astronaut, Tim Peake; the £60m of UK government funding for develop­ment of Reaction Engines’ Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine for the proposed Skylon spaceplane.

Space tourism

Now, while airbreathing space­planes operating from a UK runway are decidedly long-term, the concept, nay business, of sub-orbital tourism is not. Virgin Galactic, which has banked $250,000 deposits from more than 600 budding space tourists, is due to make its first flight from the New Mexico spaceport later this year, while its competitor XCOR plans to field its Lynx spaceplane in 2015. By the time the prospective UK spaceport is up and running, these providers will be looking for additional places of business that could include the UK.

Beyond that, we should remember that Virgin is also developing its own satellite launcher, LauncherOne, which will be deployed from the same carrier-aircraft as the sub-orbital spacecraft – the main difference being that satellites are, by definition, destined for orbit. In theory, a UK spaceport sited on the coast of northern Scotland would be ideally suited to this type of application, especially for small imaging satellites launched northwards into a polar (sun-synchronous) orbit. Through my best pair of rose-tinted spectacles, I can imagine a world where Stornaway becomes a major hub for sub-orbital tourist flights to view the aurora borealis, the deployment of satellite imaging constellations such as Google’s Skybox and, perhaps one day, commercial trans-polar flights to the antipodes.

Of course, such speculation is premature on the basis of a printed report and a runway that is currently half a kilometre too short... which is one reason why taciturn government employees at Farnborough’s Space Day conference wilted under a barrage of negative questioning from one American space reporter. What about environmental concerns? What about US regulations that restrict the export of technology? What if somebody dies on a mission and their family sues for compensation?

Catherine Mealing-Jones, director of growth, applications and EU programmes at the UK Space Agency, replied that the spaceport initiative is in an exploratory phase and that environmental concerns and local consultation were part of the next phase, or “questions for the future”. Regarding the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, she said: “We need to keep the right side of ITAR, but these are early days.”

As for questions of liability, George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Authority, stepped into the breach. “Spaceflight operators are not common carriers,” he said, so passengers “know they are taking a risk and have to sign to say they understand this”. From a legal point of view, he added, “if informed consent is given, there can be no expectation of suing afterwards”.

It fell to Andy Green, chair of the Innovation and Growth Strategy Steering Board, to highlight the positive aspects of UK spaceport development from an industry perspective. We should not forget, he said, that in terms of satellite manufacturing and user equipment, the size of the UK space industry “has doubled since 2007, despite a global recession”. He said the announcement of a UK spaceport for 2018 showed that “we are beginning to move, indeed think, in front of the curve”. We are seeing a “democratisation of space”, he continued, and “the dream is that we should lead in this democratisation”.

Finally, Green made a “tribute to David Willetts in his absence” which triggered an astonishing round of applause from the audience. It’s not often a government minister receives an ovation in absentia, but this just goes to show the standing of Willetts in the space community.

His replacement will have to go some to occupy that pedestal, but minister Robert Goodwill had a few good phrases in his quiver. “We are at the dawn of a second space revolution,” he said, opining that the UK is “the first European country to take spaceplane applications seriously”. The ambition, he concluded, “is for the UK to capture 10 per cent of the global space market by 2030”.

Sitting in the audience, one could be forgiven for thinking of those post-war sci-fi epics. But I knew that the concept of a UK spaceport had truly entered the public consciousness when, a few days later, it came up in the satirical TV quiz programme ‘Mock the Week’. Now I know it’s going to happen! *

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