Sutherland Spaceport: The woes and uncertainty

4th May 2021
Sutherland Spaceport

Out of the three proposed Scottish vertical spaceports, none of them have escaped controversy or challenge, which is fairly normal when you are looking at projects of this nature where environmental issues were always going to arise. However, some of the controversies that have arisen have been a bit more sinister or at the least raise highly questionable practices.

The Sutherland spaceport came up against the full force of environmental protest group, Extinction Rebellion, given the highly sensitive landscape around the proposed launch site. Over 400 objections to the planning application were submitted, with most citing the removal of tonnes of peat as being seriously detrimental to the country’s climate emergency promises.

Also, local group, Protect The Mhoine, co-ordinated many of the protests against the spaceport and in conjunction with Extinction Rebellion, launched a very convincing video highlighting the huge negative impact on the environment if the spaceport was to go ahead.

But, the environmental issues aren’t the only matters creating a thorn in the side of the Sutherland Spaceport consortium. The group also lost their largest player – global arms giant Lockheed Martin – who jumped ship to then team up with rival spaceport at Shetland Space Centre.

Orbex bailed out financially by local enterprise group

However, the most bizarre (and likely most painful) issue around the Sutherland Spaceport has focused around their finances. A number of oddities arose that showed the remaining launch partner, Orbital Express Launch Ltd. (Orbex Space) was just clinging on financially following a bailout loan of £675,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise to keep them afloat, despite the company claiming to have raised 10s of millions of pounds from “investors”.

The project still isn’t out of the woods as there is a pending legal case brought about by Danish businessman Anders Povlsen, who is also one of Scotland’s largest landowners and in fact owns a neighbouring estate. Mr. Povlsen’s legal challenge is no the basis of the environmental damage that will be done by the construction of the launch site.

Also, on the financial aspect of the project, Orbex originally planned to have two launch pads, one of which would accommodate Lockheed Martin (who would have had a different fuelling system, leading to different infrastructure requirements). However, since Lockheed Martin bailed out, the plans were reduced to just one launch pad, meaning that there would only be capacity for a maximum of 12 launches per year – a significant reduction from the original number of 30. This, of course, has significant implications on the overall financial viability of the project.

We will continue to monitor this spaceport with interest, to see if it really does get off the ground or of it dies on its feet.

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