UK Space Ambitions: Over 4 years on. How badly has it gone for the British Government?

10th Feb 2023
UK Space Ambitions: Over 4 years on. How badly has it gone for the British Government?

It was July 2018 at the Farnborough International Airshow, and important figures from the aerospace industry and those from the emerging and growing UK space industry were joined by UK government ministers. This wasn’t going to be like previous airshows. There was something exciting afoot. The UK government along with the UK Space Agency were embracing a New Space Race for the country and were announcing their exciting new plans. UK space ambitions were coming to the fore.

So we are now four and a half years on, let’s take a look at whether the original plan has come together and if not then what has changed since then. With the UK government seemingly immersed in scandal after scandal and suggestions of dishonesty, it seems like a worthwhile exercise to see how their promises have panned out.

Plan A for UK space ambitions

The initial plan put the government’s full backing behind a launch site in Sutherland, Scotland, with grants given to US arms giant Lockheed Martin and a German/Danish company, Orbital Express Launch Ltd. (aka Orbex and formerly named Moonspike) to co-ordinate the project and provide the initial launch vehicles. The launch site was to accommodate multiple launch operators and would have a third party company brought in to manage the launch complex.

The government and UK Space Agency also threw their weight behind Richard Branson’s US aerospace company, Virgin Orbit, in his bid to operate a rocket launch service out of Newquay Airport in Cornwall.

There was also some token support for a number of proposed launch sites across the country.

Plan B for Scottish launch sites

Over four years down the line and the Sutherland Spaceport hasn’t quite worked out according to plan. The first blow to the site was the withdrawal of Lockheed Martin (despite receiving a £17.3m government grant). Lockheed Martin later announced they would launch from an alternative site in the Shetland Isles.

The Shetland Isles launch site, on Unst, suddenly became the forerunner in the race to space despite minimal backing from the British Government. It is likely going to be the first vertical launch site in UK history to come into operation.

The German/Danish group, Orbex, in partnership with Highlands and Islands Enterprise. had to eventually concede that the Sutherland site would not be able to accommodate other launch providers as the planning application limited the site design so that it was only really to be setup for their Prime rocket and that they were also limited to 12 launches per year. This raised some pretty huge questions over the financial viability of the launch site.

The consortium also failed to find a suitable Launch Site Operator and eventually Orbex had to step in to fulfil that role as well as being the sole launch service provider at the site. However, there was never any mention of any other provider in the running, so it is likely that it simply wasn’t a viable proposition for anybody else to take on. UK space ambitions have taken a body blow over the past four years as the original plans completely collapsed and those left to make the best of the situation scramble in desperation to recover what they can from the disastrous situation.

Meantime, the private sector make significant leaps forward in progressing the country’s route to space. So, what we are witnessing is a mirror image of the USA’s situation which has seen private enterprises overshadow the government’s efforts and where the likes of NASA (and their previously dominant technology partners) have fallen way behind in a race to progress the country’s space industry.

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