OT Interviews: Matt Archer, UKSA Commercial Space Director

24th Feb 2023
OT Interviews: Matt Archer, UKSA Commercial Space Director

Orbital Today was fortunate to spend some time online recently talking with UKSA Commercial Space Director Matt Archer. Matt’s remit connects him with everything from helping launch companies gain permissions to funding for satellite construction to international relations. It’s far too much to cover in one sitting, and we look forward to asking Matt Archer questions regarding UK investments into ESA next time around!

The beginning of 2023 has been busy for UKSA, though, and in this interview, we focused mostly on current events.

Start Me Up and lessons learned

OT: Looking at what’s happened since the beginning of the Spaceport Cornwall project and up through the actual departure of the 747, what have you drawn from it?

MA: It’s been a long project. Many don’t realize how many years worth of effort it took to get to the launch on the 9th of January. We’ve been capturing project lessons learned throughout that time, and we’ve got our cross-government and cross-industry lessons learned exercise at the end of this month to make sure that we close out all the things we’ve learned from the project.

It’s a cliché and literally so. This is rocket science.

Matt Archer

It’s a cliché and literally so. This is rocket science. So when you get through some of the emotions that come with not achieving the mission we set out to do, we take solace in the fact that we did lots of things right. We’ve got the underpinning regulations, we managed to conduct a safe mission in multiple bits of airspace with multiple actors across Europe. We had to coordinate that.

Likewise, Spaceport Cornwall is operational and ready to conduct future launches. For me, if you look at the successes of the project up to that point, you can say we did everything right. Ultimately, there’s nothing I could have done differently to avoid a second stage engine failure, which is what caused the mission to fail.

Virgin are conducting their own investigation to understand what went wrong and, hopefully, what the fixes are for future launches. But for us, the lesson learned is that we’re pretty resilient and we’ll go again. We knew this was going to be hard and it’s given us a renewed focus to continue to build a UK launch market.

OT: One thing that I noticed myself was that the live feed wasn’t necessarily all that fascinating. Is the media side of things going to be something you’re going to take a look at or was that really more under Virgin’s belt at that time?

MA: Virgin run the live stream for their launches and, on reflection, I think we would look to do it a bit differently, more in partnership between us, and with some stronger UK-focused content as well. While we didn’t have kind of any video imagery that we could meaningfully share on the night, there was probably more that could have been done to really articulate what was happening with the launch, just so that everyone gets the right information at the right time.

OT: Spaceport Cornwall’s Melissa Thorpe has really talked about the need for sparking kids interest and things like this. The education side of it. I imagined my 12 year-old self watching this thing and asking would I actually put down a soldering iron to watch that and the answer was no. So I’m really hoping that there’s something I could show my own 12 year-old kids.

MA: There were about 50,000 people or so on the Virgin Orbit live stream, and then about another 80,000 or so on the BBC live stream that fed off the same sort of data.

So, 130,000 people watched it live, and we know from the media coverage thereafter that 200 million people were engaged in some form of understanding of what was happening in Cornwall. I’m pleased to see that we have that impact, but the other side is we have to look at all of these things and think, “what can we do better next time?”

I’m glad that we have had an inspirational effect. One of the really nice things about my job is when you get those emails where children are willing to send in models of the rockets they’ve made, or how they watched the launch and enjoyed it. It’s not for everybody, and it was never going to be, but I think it’s something we can look at again.

Credit where credit’s due

OT: You mentioned that the regulatory basis is now there, that this is one of the things that was actually a definite outcome. That, maybe, doesn’t get enough press, which I think is a shame, but also the fact that the Civil Aviation Authority came out with the Virgin Orbit permission three months faster than they thought they would.

It didn’t really seem to sink in very well. Do you think there could have been a bit more disclosure ahead of time or a bit more mentioning of things in process?

MA: It’s a process that we, the Civil Aviation Authority, and Virgin went through for the first time. We’ve definitely learned some lessons about how we can be more effective in our approach and how we can make sure that expectations of launch providers are really clearer in terms of making sure they can provide the evidence that’s required to make the safety case.

Government regulations are never going to be prime time news, but it is rightly an achievement of the work that a large number of civil servants have put in over years, working effectively with industry and other countries like the US with knowhow to design that framework and to have it in place. We’ve approached it with the view that we are not perfect, and that we expect there will be things to learn and improve. It took time this time around and there’s a mix of reasons for that.

Whether it’s information provided that needed to be improved, whether it’s having the right resources, we need to work that through so that the process will get quicker, and that’s the plan for everyone involved in spaceflight. They should be able to repeat those steps in a much quicker fashion. It’s a positive licensing approach and one that we’re looking forward to bearing fruit in future years as well.

UKSA and Forge Star 1 support

OT: Space Forge have already confirmed that they’re going to build Forge Star 1. Are you looking at supporting efforts like that? Is it too early to start talking about such things?

MA: The UK Space Agency, and certainly through my team who run the UK’s investments in the Boost program through the European Space Agency, we’ve already committed funding that will be used to develop the next Forge Star. We had conversations as an agency with Space Forge and their future ambitions and the role that they might play in the sector.

And that’s part of our ongoing engagement with a number of companies across the sector. Lots of these innovative companies are basing themselves here in the UK because of the ecosystem of launch and the wider space sector that has the skills they need. It’s important that we continue to build on that. We’re already supporting Space Forge and we will continue to work with them closely to see how best we can support them and their endeavors in boosting the Welsh space sector. We are all looking forward to the better times ahead.

The Rolls-Royce of nuclear propulsion

OT: The next question is about nuclear propulsion. Rolls-Royce came out with their announcement recently about nuclear propulsion for spacecraft. Do you think that the issue of who gets to be involved with nuclear powered spacecraft needs to be examined further? Is the use of of nuclear power an inevitability in commercial spacecraft, and would the UK have central place in such market?

MA: Nuclear powered spacecraft are likely to be a part of our future and there will of course need to be very stringent safety rules, just as we do for nuclear power plants. It’s important that they are treated with the appropriate safety and respect that those materials require, not least recognizing that any transition to using them in space requires transit of them from here to space.

We’ve already committed £22 million to an ESA programme developing radio isotope power systems, and we’re working with the national nuclear programme, having just providing £19 million of funding to produce the isotope americium 241. At the moment, that’s produced only by Russia and the United States and for us to be able to do that in Europe, as a leading space nation, it’s really important. I think it recognizes that nuclear will play its part, but we need to make sure that’s done safely and securely in future.

The rules will be tight, but I think it’s important that you know that the opportunity is there …

Matt Archer

And I think that will be a big part of the challenge globally for the space sector. How do we ensure that any use of nuclear materials in launch or future missions, whether that be to the Moon or Mars or elsewhere, is done in a safe and responsible manner? It definitely has a role to play in our sector.

So the short answer is,yes, and it would depend on the mission itself and the security factors. If you look at the transition, in the United States as well as in the UK, our focus has not been on really big government programs where we own the launch company or we own that capability. What we do is we invest through the commercial sector to generate longer term growth.

So, I would expect that we would see the same where we have need for those kind of missions, those commercial properties would have an appropriate way to access that resource and demonstrate that they can do so safely and responsibly in support of their ambitions.

The rules will be tight, but I think it’s important that you know that the opportunity is there because it’s not going to be a big state sponsored craft.

Insurance and Regulation

OT: Space and science minister George Freeman chaired a round table on 26th January regarding insurance and the UK space sector. Given Britain’s strengths and the insurance field, how do you see the UK promoting change in the commercial space insurance field?

MA: It’s been a great focus of our sector so far. It’s a real strength of the UK services sector that we provide the largest kind of ancillary sector of insurance services, and that means all space insurance anywhere outside of the US. It’s generally recognized as a key skill set that we bring, and financial services are have been a strength in the sector and the UK economy more broadly. The government is rightly is looking at how we can strengthen that going forward. There are regular roundtables and forums with industry to make sure that we bring in plans for space sustainability. So, how do we lead globally that transition to a safe and sustainable space environment?

Our role, as more small companies get involved in the space sector, is to help ensure they can access that with appropriate cost and insurance models. We are actively lookingat how we can do that to best effect.

OT: How do you see developments tying insurance and regulation?

MA: All our launches from the UK – including any object that’s launched from the UK – require their own launch insurance.

We have to make sure that taxpayer risk is managed against any kind of overall cost of the exchequer of any incident.

I suspect that, longer term, we’ll see more focus around sustainability and having stronger rules around how long satellites are in orbit, how actively they need to deorbit, and how to do that safely. It’s important that we have licensing and insurance regimes that reflect that we are controlling that risk with better effect.

I expect over time, as people start to use active debris removal, we’ll start to see that being factored into their insurance premiums.

Dual Purpose dilemma

OT: In Earth Observation, for example, there are a lot of dual-use technologies and data products. Positioning, Navigation, and Timing satellites are another. This could create problems where one side of a conflict attempts to interfere with a nominally civilian satellite with the claim that it was engaged in military operations. We saw this last year in regard to navigation in particular. Do you think that there will be a way to avoid such interference?

MA: One thing I’ve learned during my time in the space sector is that it’s never, straightforward. The reality is there will always be a sovereign requirement to have access to space both on a civilian requirements basis or in recognition that it has distinct advantages for military purposes. You’re never going to get away from that. One thing that we certainly can do is avoid the militarization of space, despite the fact that we’ve seen some anti-satellite missile tests.

The reality is more and more commercial missions will continue to go up and they will include military capability where that’s required. I think there will always be a mix of domains and the need to recognize that will always exist, but they can coexist. I suspect it’s not a clean cut answer, but I think everybody’s got to have their best efforts at heart to make sure that space remains usable for all.

Start Me Up: How British Was It?

OT: And then the last question goes back to the Start Me Up launch and there is a small as far as I can tell, but rather vocal subsector of the of the human population saying that Start Me Up really was an American launch taking place on British soil. At the at the end of the day, does the Britishness of the event really matter? And just how British would you say that the launch was?

MA: Well, it was an American launch vehicle. It did launch a mix of payloads. The majority were from the UK, but there were other satellites from the US, Poland and Oman. You will always have a mix and that’s how the satellite industry works. That’s how satellite customers operate. They would choose global launch companies, which is part of the challenge of launch.

The way we set out the program and the UK’s ambition was recognising that we wanted a balance of creating a market that developed home grown talent, such as like Orbex and Skyrora, while appreciating that others, such as Virgin Orbit, can bring more mature technologies.

The reality is whether we’re looking at new vertical launch providers, like Orbex, or established providers of horizontal launch,like Virgin. That was always the design of the programme. From my perspective, it will be forever written in the history books that, on the 9th of January 2023, the UK conducted its first ever launch from UK soil. It is fundamentally a British thing.

In terms of who delivered that launch? Yes, it was an an American company, but that was a partnership that we deliberately made possible through international technology safeguards agreements.

Does it matter? It matters that we delivered value for money for taxpayers, and we will continue to do that with all our future launches.

The point was to demonstrate the best of British ambition and innovation.

Unfortunately, the payloads didn’t make it, but we achieved a first launch, and we saw the first Welsh satellite constructed. All of those things will continue to be true and the more we think about t, the more that we will value that success. And we’ll go again.

You’re not going to please everybody, but we’ve run a programme to deliver the benefits that we set out in our business case. We’ve got to remember that this ambition was a mix of bringing in established companies and creating a sector that is attractive to launch companies the world over.

In the future we will have a sector that offers homegrown solutions and will attract others that want to launch from here. I know that German companies in particular are looking to launch from the UK, which is a good thing. This generates jobs and investment in what are often quite rural communities. The more we can focus on these positive things, the better.

Orbital Today thanks Matt Archer for taking the time to speak with us, and we’re already drafting questions for another round!

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