Spaceports Alliance: An excellent initiative… Orbex may disagree though

2nd Oct 2020
Scotland

One of the biggest news items this week was the announcement of the creation of the Spaceports Alliance in the UK. Mostly because it has now caused some considerable embarrassment for one particular launch company. And also because the launch sites have to date been increasingly competitive and locked into a head to head race to be first to launch.

Of course in any commercial sector there exists competition which can sometimes be played out quite publicly, and the space industry is not exempt from that. The Scottish vertical launch sites have publicly competed against each other and in fact two in particular have each claimed to be in the lead in what has become termed as the new space race. This is quite normal practice to make bold claims particularly when seeking funding and building your public profile and brand. Everybody wants to place their bets on the winner right?

So, we were definitely pleased to see those launch sites come together and form an alliance. It should now create a more collaborative playing field in which each of the launch sites can work in sync and maybe even have some shared initiatives (collaborative launch calendars, common resources, shared ground stations).

However, I did mention earlier that this will cause some embarrassment for at least one launch company. Whilst the space industry appears to be overall very collaborative, one company has been very much flying solo and has outright stated they would never launch from the Shetland Isles. It was back in February 2019 when the Shetland Space Centre politely congratulated Orbex Space on the opening of their new facility in Forres. Rather than a polite thank you, the somewhat abrupt response from Orbex was that they would never launch from Shetland.

We thought at the time they had maybe just got out of bed on the wrong side and we had also a brief memory of them being rude to somebody else on twitter, so we checked whether there had been any other exchange between the two. We discovered that they definitely weren’t good friends.

Orbex Shetland spat

We then had a realisation that this maybe didn’t align with the prospect of an alliance.

Orbex are committed to launching from the Sutherland Spaceport, which has capacity for 12 launches per year – all of which will be taken up by Orbex’ commitments, which means it is a single launch operator site. If they want to grow they would need to use other sites for additional launch capacity. Now, with Sutherland ruled out for any other launchers, how could an alliance benefit them at all, particularly in light of the rocky relationship between their “exclusive” launch operator and the Shetland Space Centre?

Orbex’s moment of madness back in early 2019 has jeopardised this otherwise fantastic initiative from the Scottish Space Leadership Council by isolating the Sutherland site and ruling out their potential use of Shetland’s launch facilities. It sort of makes it difficult to see how the Sutherland Spaceport could be part of an alliance in any way other than on paper.

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