Spaceports will transform the UK into a spacefaring nation

July 19, 2018

The Government has formally green-lighted Britain’s first spaceport. This means that a vertical launch site will be established in Sutherland, Scotland. The project will be supported by a UK Space Agency grant of some £30m in Industrial Strategy funds from the £50m UK space launch programme. Separately, three further projects shortlisted as potential horizontal launch sites – for future “spaceplanes” – in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall will receive an extra bit of funding (£2m) to help them develop their final bids.

The decision on the Sutherland spaceport caps an impressive UK space policy trajectory in that has already delivered the world’s “most modern” Space Industry Act earlier this year. The Act created the regulatory framework for what is expected to become a £3.8bn UK market in commercial spaceflight over the next decade – to say nothing of the wider boost this will give to the UK space sector and prospects for new international partnerships. From a purely British commercial perspective, it is truly pioneering stuff – although against the global landscape, the UK is only catching up in this field. (Countries ranging from France to Israel, India, Japan or South Korea and even Iran – not to mention space heavyweights like the US, Russia or China – all possess indigenous space launch capabilities.)

What makes this a notable – perhaps historic – moment for Britain is that it marks its transformation into a “spacefaring” nation, certainly in policy terms. The polar orbits accessible from the Scottish site may be of a somewhat limited use in practice, but gaining spacefaring status is of strategic significance nonetheless. It is a crucial step towards what might be called “autonomy” in space affairs, and an essential waypoint towards UK becoming a “Tier One” space power as well – as it should be. Spacefaring status entails the ability to independently build and launch craft into space. Britain has long been a world leader in building satellites; but for decades it has lacked the capability to place them in orbit after shutting down its short-lived rocket programme in the early 1970s. Now, we are officially joining the spacefaring club of the Second Space Age.

That being said, while sense of (policy) achievement and optimism is justified, symbolism should not be confused with the real thing: no commercial spacecraft has yet blasted off from these isles. Much of the Government’s plan for this space market sector hangs on moving quickly and beating other European countries to the first launch. The target date for this is 2020. But only about two weeks ago another company signed a deal to build a spaceport in Italy with local partners, with a view to launching commercial spaceflights (in the space tourism submarket) by the same date, 2020.  Beyond Europe, competition is even stiffer, from India to Australia or New Zealand – which are making big strides in the space launch sector. In February last year, for example, an Indian rocket launched a whole constellation of 88 Planet Labs nanosatellites in one go. And this January a company successfully tested its low-cost launcher in New Zealand: its rocket engines are 3D-printed and the company is licenced to launch every 72 hours (prices start from a mere $100,000 per nanosatellite).

Britain’s spacefaring status is emerging as an extension of a commercial logic. In the case of many of the other spacefaring nations the journey started, on the contrary, from strategic (indeed military) imperatives, with commercial applications added on later. Britain arguably lacks that conceptual depth when it comes to thinking strategically about space. Therefore, as the UK develops its spaceflight ambitions, these will need to be paired with a more expansive, robust and disciplined perspective on some of the harsher power dynamics and astropolitics of outer space that stretch beyond mere commercial considerations.

The new spaceports will truly take us beyond the final strategic frontier: UK’s grand vision for space must rise to the occasion.

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