UK seen as ‘toxic’ for satellite launches, industry tells MPs
Image credit: Airbus
“Seismic change” is needed for the UK to be appealing for future space missions, following the failure of Virgin Orbit's Start Me Up mission, industry representatives have told MPs.
The UK government is being urged to redirect funding earmarked for space projects to hospitals, as investors lose trust in the country's space industry.
Senior figures at Welsh satellite maker Space Forge have spoken to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee about regulatory delays and "jarring" interactions with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
“Quite frankly, it costs us more to license our satellite for launch than it did to launch it,” Joshua Western, the company's chief executive, told MPs.
Space Forge was hoping to become the first company to successfully bring a satellite back down to Earth following VirginOrbit's Start Me Up mission. However, Space Forge lost its satellite after a dislodged fuel filter on the LauncherOne rocket caused an engine to overheat and shut down the mission.
The Welsh company has now expressed doubts that it would be onboard for any future launch in the UK.
Patrick McCall, Space Forge's non-executive director, said that for the UK to win back investor confidence it needed two or three customers from the public sector to show that unnecessary regulatory difficulties would not delay launches.
“I think unless there is a seismic change in that approach the UK is not going to be competitive from a launch perspective,” he said. “There is no chance that Josh Western [Space Forge CEO] would win the argument to do the next launch in the UK. Even if the UK came and said you can do it for free, I would say don’t do that.
“I don’t think it’s deliberate, I think people at the CAA want to make it happen, but it’s not working and either we change that with a seismic shift or we save the money and spend it on other things which are achievable.”
He added a recommendation that the UK ought to consider spending the money it was investing in launch capability on other areas, such as hospitals.
Committee chairman Greg Clark said the situation was a disaster for the UK space program.
"Isn't it that we attempted to show what we were capable of? And the result is that it's now toxic for private-funded launch. We now need to have the government do it to earn back the confidence of private space investors," he said, to which McCall agreed.
Space Forge compared the six-month process that they had to undergo in order to obtain a license with the ease and speed of obtaining the same approval in neighbouring EU countries such as Portugal.
Dan Hart, the CEO of Virgin Orbit, told MPs he had expected the CAA to work more similarly to the Federal Aviation Authority in the US, but he had found the UK regulator more conservative.
However, Sir Stephen Hillier, CAA chairman, denied the delayed launch was down to a regulatory drag. "Our primary aim is to ensure that the space activity in the UK is safe," he said.
"There's always going to take a period of time for them to reconstitute in another country and new operations [and] deliver the mission, but in terms of how the sequencing works, from our perspective, we are confident that we licensed in advance of technical readiness."
Over the past year, the UK has been increasingly investing in its space sector. In December, Virgin Orbit became the first company to be awarded a licence by the Civil Aviation Authority to initiate a space launch from UK soil.
In 2020, the UK government bought a stake in failed satellite firm OneWeb satellite, which aims to develop a network of more than 650 LEO satellites designed for internet services.
Space Forge has said it plans to launch its future satellites with SpaceX in the US.
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