Part 2: The UK Space Consortium – cracking it wide open

15th Jun 2020
Sutherland spaceport

Since our article on the UK Space Consortium (published Monday 8th June 2020 – https://orbitaltoday.com/2020/06/08/cracks-starting-to-show-in-uk-space-consortium-as-they-criticise-local-council-government/) where we highlighted some of the consortium’s claims that didn’t quite add up, we have been inundated with messages and info, so we have brought this together with our own research to bring you a follow on report.

Firstly, we did ask Highlands and Islands Enterprise for more information on the £675,000 loan given to Orbital Express Launch Ltd., but our request wasn’t answered publicly and we were instead told to post them a “Freedom of Information” request, which we promptly did (it can take up to 28 days apparently).

The Mysterious Jobs claim

One thing that raised more questions than answers was the claims of creating 70, 80 or 100 jobs by Orbex CEO, Chris Larmour. We have pointed out that everywhere suggests there are between 13-15 people employed by Orbex in the UK, and that has been the case since at least July 2018. The figure of 15 was confirmed by Orbex in the details they provided to media and attendees at the opening of their facilities on 7th February 2019 (see below). So, they have had two years to create all those jobs and appear not to have done so.

The media brief given to Scottish Government at the Orbex “Rocket Factory” opening on 7th February 2019.

Note: The above media brief mentioned that Orbex were voted 6th place in the NewSpacePeople global rankings. The next again year they ended up in 202nd place.

The Civil Servant

Orbex have, of course, employed people since then. Just a few months after being awarded a £5.5m grant by the UK Space Agency, Orbex employed an International Liaison Director. We have searched everywhere and we can’t find that job advertised anywhere – it was definitely not advertised in the Highlands. Of course it is quite common practice to headhunt people, so let’s have a look at where Catriona Francis was working, where she may have been headhunted from…

THE GRANTS OFFICE AT THE UK SPACE AGENCY!

Wait, surely that can’t be true. So, we double checked. And yes, her LinkedIn profile shows that she was working as Grants Engagement Manager at the UK Space Agency at the time when Orbex Grant Application was making its way through her office. She was a British government Civil Servant, working as a Manager in the department responsible for awarding funds to space companies.

She then appeared on Orbex’ books in a job position that was never advertised. Of course we are sure she wasn’t “placed” into Orbex by the Civil Service. That wouldn’t happen. Would it?

We don’t even know if that’s legal. We aren’t suggesting it’s illegal. We simply don’t know. Certainly in USA it would be scrutinised very closely. Maybe the UK government take a different stance on this.

The American Arms Dealer

Let’s keep in mind that the UK Space Agency are handing out public funds and they have already allocated around £17m to a company with a consistent, recorded history of fraudulent and illegal practices. If you’re not sure what we are referring to, here’s a brief reminder of some of Lockheed Martin’s shenanigans…

But surely the US Government simply stopped handing Lockheed Martin huge contracts after that sort of behaviour? Nope… $40.5bn in 2018, $50.6bn in 2017, $43.3bn in 2016…

But that wouldn’t happen in the UK, would it?

Well it would be a good time to remind people of how “involved” Lockheed Martin became when the UK Government decided to introduce the “Bribery Act”:

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200809/jtselect/jtbribe/115/115we42.htm

Lockheed Martin Violations

Just to give you a flavour of what these violations were and why they may not be good for UK space industry…

1. Allegedly transferring Space Launch Information to China. Fined $13m

2. Overcharging rent on four buildings by $15m. Fined $10.5m

3. Procurement Fraud. Fined $2.2m

4. Unfair Competition. Fined $24.8m

5. Rocket System Contract Overcharge (mischarge?). Fine £1.4m

You get the idea…

Now, we are not suggesting for one minute that this consortium is doing anything unlawful. And we are definitely not suggesting that the UK Government and its Civil Service (UKSA) are in anyway orchestrating the early stages of the UK’s space industry formation in any sort of underhand way. Absolutely not. We are sure that everybody involved knew nothing about anything.

As far as we are aware…

1. It is not illegal to receive (on paper) millions of £££s of UK government grants and then recruit one of the key Government Civil Servant’s from that department – that we are aware of

2. It is not illegal for a company with a substantial history of illegality & questionable practices to obtain funds from the UK government to conduct similar business activities that got them into trouble in their home country… although we would have expected a process of due diligence to highlight those concerns.

3. It is not illegal for foreign nationals to setup a limited company in the UK and obtain funds from the UK government on the basis of “job creation” that 2 years down the line hasn’t come to fruition, or on the basis that they are financially “robust” and have the funds to tackle the project in hand (despite their own accounts suggesting otherwise)

What we are questioning though… is exactly who knows what?

Are Highlands and Islands Enterprise aware of Orbex financial situation? (given that they just loaned them £675k, of course they are… if not, then there should be questions asked)

Are the UK Government aware of Lockheed Martin’s track record? (of course they are!)

Is the UK Space Agency aware of Lockheed Martin’s track record? (of course they are, or they haven’t done their due diligence)

Who are the UK Space Consortium?

UK Space Agency: The Banker. The Provider of Funds

Highlands & Islands Enterprise: The Project Managers & secondary source of funds

Lockheed Martin: The US & UK Military supplier handed millions £££s by UK government

Orbital Express Launch Ltd.: A Danish/German rocket company with full backing of UK Govt., appeared out of nowhere (from stealth mode)

Elecnor Deimos: Part of the consortium providing ground services. Recipients of small grant. Based in Spain

Melness Crofters Estate: The landlords who will rent the spaceport land to the consortium.

Investigation into UK Space Consortium

We believe that there needs to be an urgent investigation into the UK Space Consortium. Particularly in relation to the awarding of public funds & movement of key civil servants. The investigation should look at whether a full level of due diligence was carried out on Lockheed Martin, Orbex (and Elecnor Deimos), and their senior management.

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