OT Interviews: Spaceport Cornwall CEO Melissa Thorpe

6th Dec 2022
OT Interviews: Spaceport Cornwall CEO Melissa Thorpe

This week, Orbital Today continues its “Five Questions With…” interview series with Spaceport Cornwall CEO Melissa Thorpe. It’s the most hectic of times for the Spaceport, as expectations are that this month it will become the site of the first-ever UK satellite launch. Orbital Today was fortunate that Melissa Thorpe could take the time to speak with us.

The first UK launch

OT: Spaceport Cornwall intends to host the first space launch from British soil in history before the end of the year. Can you tell us anything about the event?

MT: Yeah. So it’s exactly that. It’s a very historic moment, not just because it is the first from UK soil, but also the first for Virgin outside of the US as well as some of the satellites that are going up on the first mission as well. So it’s the first time they’ve ever gone to space. The companies, and also countries like Oman, are sending a satellite up. So it’s massively historic, but it’s also the first time, which means it’s challenging and it has been challenging for almost eight years now to get to this point. And we’re very close. A few more things we need to do to get to that launch itself. But it’s all it’s all very exciting.

OT: Could you briefly discuss the unique applications of Virgin Orbit’s kind of launch capability? I appreciate you’re not with the company.

MT: Yeah. I’m not with Virgin Orbit, but I’ve worked with them for long enough now and we are one big team to get this launch done. So the Virgin Orbit system, as you said, is slightly different from a traditional launch company. They use a modified Boeing 747, called Cosmic Girl, to take the rocket part way to space. So the rocket, which is called LauncherOne, is a two-stage rocket, a small satellite launcher, and that goes up to about 30,000 feet on Cosmic Girl, where Cosmic Girl drops the rocket midair and that rocket then ignites and goes into space where it deploys its payload. So it’s a slightly different type of operation, but it means that Virgin Orbit are able to move around the world, come to the customer base, whereas at the moment most satellites go to the launch location. The launch location almost comes to the customer base with Virgin Orbit and they provide that kind of responsive launch. They can launch pretty much anywhere any with a long enough runway. And that’s their business model. And we’re the first step out of the U.S. it’s big for both of us.

The space industry and education in the UK

OT: Could you tell us about the academic and industrial expertise that’s led the spaceport to this prestigious moment?

MT: Yeah. I mean, Cornwall’s not necessarily known for being a space cluster and when they first announced it as a space port eight years ago, you know, a lot of people didn’t quite believe that it was happening or could happen. But we really built on the foundations that have been set by Goonhilly Earth Station and all that’s going on down at Goonhilly; it’s absolutely incredible what Ian has done with his team down there. And they really opened the door to a lot of conversations that we had early days and now we’ve grown this other asset, which is the spaceport. So between us and Goonhilly, we’ve got quite an amazing kind of space ecosystem here. On top of that, we have the academic prowess of the University of Exeter and Falmouth University and Plymouth University who’ve been working closely with us on lots of different things around space, from data to satellite applications, environmental intelligence in space and space sustainability. So there’s such a lot going on down here. And then the businesses themselves, I think something like 50 space companies or companies that use space in Cornwall as the main part of their business. But we’re really interested in some of the more traditional industries that have not used space yet. So some of the marine businesses, agriculture, mining and we’re working really closely with our colleagues over at Aerospace Cornwall to help them kind of, you know, open up those similar doors that really did for us, for some of these other businesses, too.

OT: Some experts warn of a STEM skills shortage in the UK, only set to widen as we aspire towards a slice of the global space market. How has Cornwall worked to support education initiatives to ensure we’re ready for these technological revolutions?

MT: Yeah, I mean, the STEM shortage is a global issue, not just specific to the UK. So we have to kind of come at it from a few different kinds of perspectives. And I think for us really early days, the first thing we said about Dean was that inspiration piece. We knew that Space inspires and launch especially inspires children to go into careers in STEM, as we saw with the Apollo missions, and they didn’t even have an official outreach program. So even before we were really up and running, we started an outreach program which was quite ad hoc. So, going into schools, as many as we could. And for us, it’s easy to get kids excited about space launch, but what’s not so easy is getting the pathways in into the industry and so developing those with the local colleges. So specifically for us that’s been with Truro & Penwith College, who started up their own space institute, a brand new building. And, you know, it’s incredible what they’ve done there because now we have this amazing kind of pipeline of students coming to college and then building again the same relationship with the University of Exeter and the other local universities down here. So that we have this amazing pipeline from that primary school student all the way up now into careers. And we also then work really closely with the UK Space Agency in the Catapult on things like the Sprint Term program, so internships as well as a kind of work experience. And, I think for us, we’re just at the beginning of what we’re able to do in this field, but we know the power of space to inspire. But we also know that we need to be able to harness that power. We have to get the right pathways into the industry and also to communicate that space isn’t just about being an astronaut or an astrophysicist anymore. And breaking down some of those stereotypes is really important.

Melissa Thorpe and the £1,000,000,000 economic benefit claim

OT: So you claim your spaceport is capable of providing £1,000,000,000 of economic value by 2030? Many commentators are similarly optimistic, proposing that the UK space industry has the capacity for explosive growth. What comes next for the industry following this leap forwards with the launch?

MT: Yeah. I mean, that figure is not what directed right toward the spaceport itself; that’s the entire ecosystem in Cornwall and the space industry and the opportunities that will come out of the back of things like spaceport. And we know what we’re seeing already is literally blowing us away. It’s incredible how many companies are wanting to grow into the site, to move on to site to be part of the journey. That’s that the excitement of launch is, and so we are seeing it and that’s really exciting because it kind of means that launch is just slightly the icing on the cake, and we’re using it as a catalyst to attract other investments and other business opportunities which will create, you know, the jobs and the economic value to Cornwall and the UK. So we’re just part of that kind of wider government piece about capturing 10% of the marketplace globally. And we know what we’re good at down here, but we also know that other parts of the UK will be better at doing other things. So we’re just finding our niche again, around, you know, what Goonhilly’s doing, what we’re doing and some of the amazing kind of environmental side of space opportunities are happening in Cornwall, too.

Thank you to Melissa Thorpe

Orbital Today would like to thank Melissa Thorpe for taking the time to speak with us during this incredibly busy period before the launch.

This interview of Melissa Thorpe comes from Laurence Russell, Associate Editor at Satellite Evolution Group. A video of the full (seven-question) interview will be available shortly.

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