Case Study: Why New Space will be the winners as “Cummings Folly” holds back government ambitions

27th Jan 2021
Case Study: Why New Space will be the winners as “Cummings Folly” holds back government ambitions

Earlier in the month, we reported on a development by Edinburgh-based launch company, Skyrora Ltd. as they shared news of the third stage of their Skyrora XL launcher. This was quite a considerable news story and one that even we didn’t realise was of such significance and importance to the overall progress of the UK’s space ambitions bu decided further research was required.

The third stage, which the company referred to as a ‘Space Tug’ is more than just a vehicle in which to take satellites into orbit. It is in fact a space vehicle in its own right. It has the ability to stall and restart its engine multiple times whilst also able to navigate to a number of different locations. But, even more interesting is that it not only drops off payloads into multiple orbits, but it can also remove objects from space.

With so much talk lately of space debris and the insertion of large satellite constellations into orbit, it is essential that companies start to look at how all that traffic can be managed. If a car breaks down on a motorway here in the UK, the driver can call upon his AA or Green flag membership and have his vehicle removed from the road to allow the normal flow of traffic to continue. But, would the AA be able to collect a broken-down satellite, take it for repair or upgrade then return it back to its chosen orbit? Well, actually, if you look at the AA’s most recent TV ad… apparently yes. But in reality, no, there is currently no space equivalent of the AA.

AA TV Advert

This type of vehicle is often referred to as an Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle (OMV) and in the 1970s the development of such a vehicle was explored by NASA but never got off the ground due to funding issues. The NASA Space Transportation System (STS) consisted of a propulsion system which could drive a crew module or deliver a payload to a specific destination. However the Apollo program at the time swallowed up NASA’s budget and the STS never got beyond design stage.

Several other attempts to build an OMV have also failed to materialise. The Russians proposed a vehicle called Parom back in 2005 which would be used to transport crew and cargo to the International Space Station.

What strikes us as making the Skyrora OMV stand out is that it appears to be multi-functional in a way that none of the others is. Beyond the ability to deploy multiple satellites into a variety of different orbits, the vehicle is also able to upgrade satellites, move sats from one orbit to another, refuel vehicles in space or deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

What we are really seeing through this sort of development is that the UK government have set themselves on a path that was originally driven by Dominic Cummings and has resulted in an alliance with American company Lockheed Martin and a team based in Denmark & Germany headed up by a former military intelligence officer, none of whom have a launch vehicle (other than a prototype paraded in front of a selected press pack and the politicians who were lobbied for their support). Meantime, a home grown private enterprise makes significant leaps of progress. Those familiar with the US space industry will immediately recognise an all too familiar pattern.

A race between old and new space

If the USA is the model we are going to look at for comparison, then it becomes clear who the winners are. So, either the UK government needs to abandon Cummings Folly, or remain in the plume of the New Space  rocket that is taking these innovative companies to the forefront of space technology in what is now becoming a race between the old and the new. And when you couple that with the UK’s post-Brexit mood, the country is likely to get fully behind its home grown talent and remain perpetually suspicious of the UK government’s plans and motivations.

Dominic Cummings disastrous legacy continues and the likely outcome will be that the New Space sector will emerge as the victors amongst the chaos.

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