FACT CHECK; Chris Larmour, Orbex: “The team have performed six suborbital launches”

17th Jun 2021
Sutherland Spaceport

As we continue to monitor the progress of all the proposed spaceports and launch companies across the UK, it was always clear that some were making significantly more progress than others. This is applicable to both the launch companies and the spaceports. And whilst some are more open about their progress, there are those who keep their cards a lot closer to their chest. So, when we do come across any indication of progress, we like to check its validity, particularly when its from those who are normally less forthcoming.

This week we came across an interview with Orbex Space CEO, Chris Larmour. Orbex are one of the companies hoping to launch their rockets from the UK. They are tied to the Sutherland Spaceport via a UK Space Agency grant. The Sutherland Spaceport has proven to be the most contentious of all the proposed launch sites in the UK, attracting over 400 objections to their planning application.

You can read the interview in full here…

Orbex is creeping towards orbit from a UK launchpad, but first there are courts, birds, and billionaires to overcome • The Register

When asked about when their first launch might be, Larmour suggested a roll of a dice would be the most appropriate way to provide an answer to that question. He also suggested that it was potential delays to the Sutherland Spaceport that were likely to be their biggest barrier to progress. The proposed spaceport still has a number of legal hurdles to overcome. There is a pending legal challenge from Danish businessman and local landowner, Anders Povlsen as well as a strong objection from RSPB. There is also the question of the Scottish Land Courts having to approve the “change of use” for the land from “crofting”.

What was unusual about Larmour’s response was that he suggested that whilst others were busy with engine tests and test launches, they were busy with…. *reads article again* “being somewhere along the learning curve” and “stocking up on carbon fibre“. Keeping in mind that the company were bailed out financially by Highlands and Islands Enterprise to the tune of £670,000 to cover “operational costs”. Which would indicate there wasn’t much capital kicking about for much else.

We had a look through our historical articles to see if we had reported on any significant milestones for the company and it seems that in March of this year Orbex ordered a large 3D printer, showing that they are getting their manufacturing infrastructure in place. Although it’s not yet clear whether that machine will be located in their UK facility or their facilities in Denmark or Germany. Though the company have mentioned expansion of their UK manufacturing, so it would be safe to assume the 3D printing will be done in UK.

They also recently “signed off” on a test stand at RAF Kinloss, so we expect to see the company perform engine tests at some point soon. Presumably once they have taken receipt of their 3D printing machine and then have the capability to manufacture engines.

The interviewer went on to mention another rocket manufacturer, Skyrora, and the fact that they had performed a number of suborbital test launches, one of which was done from Iceland, and was covered by The Register in August 2020. Looking back through our own archives it seems Skyrora also performed a suborbital launch from Alness in Scotland and another launch from the Shetland Isles. We couldn’t find any evidence of other launches from Skyrora, so there are three that we are aware of.

The Orbex CEO responded to this by suggesting that the Orbex team had performed six suborbital launches. So, that was 100% more than Skyrora (that we are aware of). However, as it is our… *checks job description* JOB to report on launches that come to our attention, we were a bit disappointed in ourselves that we failed to report on the six Orbex suborbital launches, so we sent our intrepid researcher on a fact checking mission.

Our researcher performed several google searches including “Orbex launch”, “Orbex suborbital launch” and “Orbex space launch” but nothing came up. In fact, this site came up in the first page of results, demonstrating that we are an authority on reporting launches, but even our listing in the search results was simply about the prospect of them launching at some unknown time in the future. Even a general search including “suborbital launch UK” brought up nothing, other than some results from this site and the other suborbital launches we mentioned. Then we realised we were idiots. We had interpreted the statement incorrectly, as we had understood it to mean the Orbex team had performed suborbital launches for the company. Now whether it was intentionally misleading we don’t know. However, what Chris actually meant was that the company had hired people who had previously launched suborbital rockets for other organisations during their career… in fact, very specifically six in total.

That was a very specific number. And then we realised that we weren’t actually idiots, but had simply been duped by some cleverly crafted words, which on close inspection then brought us to the conclusion that somebody at Orbex had performed six suborbital launches, and Mr. Larmour was claiming that legacy as Orbex’ own. So, let’s see who that could be.

The Copenhagen Suborbitals legacy

We knew exactly where to look, because Orbex CTO, Kristian Von Bengtson appears to be the only one on “the team” that had actual hands on launch experience. Von Bengtson and his previous partner, convicted murderer Peter Madsen, were joint founders of amateur rocket group Copenhagen Suborbitals, before Von Bengtson left to work on Orbex. So, our researcher was sent off on another task. His challenge was to find out how many suborbital launches Copenhagen Suborbitals had done. That didn’t take long. The answer is SIX!

Copenhagen Suborbitals launch history
Copenhagen Suborbitals official website tells us they had performed SIX suborbital launches.
Copenhagen Suborbitals Timeline
Copenhagen Suborbitals launch history.

We have become accustomed to seeing misleading information coming from Mr. Larmour and Orbex, so as journalists interested in seeing Scotland and the rest of the UK become a successful player in the global space industry, we feel an obligation to ensure the industry isn’t blighted by the sort of bad characters we have seen in the US space industry, who frequently bring it into disrepute. And we really, really don’t like truth twisters.

So the question we ask here… and we don’t expect to get an answer anytime soon, is… “Have Orbex just claimed the Copenhagen Suborbitals launch legacy as their own? (whilst distancing themselves from the amateur rocket group because of Peter Madsen connection)” This then brings more questions, such as whether Orbex are using their own rocket design or whether that is also part of CS legacy?

It would be very odd for Orbex to claim another organisation’s progress as their own when asked by a journalist. If you keep in mind that this is the same company that claimed to have 10s of millions of pounds in “investments” and grants, yet had to be bailed out by taxpayer funded Scottish development group, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, to the tune of £670,000, then it no longer comes as a surprise that things maybe aren’t quite as they seem.

We have already started preparing our Orbex Space bingo card, to which we will now add “Larger than SpaceX”, “Not Danish”, “Not German”, “Definitely British”, “Biggest 3D Printer in the world”, “£30 million in the bank”, “It’s a real rocket not a prototype”, “not a murderer’s rocket design”, “Testing is for amateurs”, “Submarines? Oh look a squirrel”, “Copenhagen Who? Never heard of them”, “Peter Madsen? Never heard of him”, “Virgin Who? Never heard of them”, “Shetland? Where’s that?”, “400 objections? Those were just nimbys”, “Not in my backyard”, “Lockheed who? Never heard of them” to ensure we cover any future statements from Mr. Larmour. Although we suspect his handlers will keep him out of the public domain from now on. Particularly in light of his previous gaffe.

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