OT Interviews: Colin Macleod, Head of Space Regulation at CAA30th Jun 2023
Since taking on space industry licencing, the UK Civil Aviation Authority has issued over 340 licences. This includes the UK’s first spaceport licence, for Spaceport Cornwall, and Virgin Orbit’s launch licence, another first. After those historic issuances, the authority has undertaken an internal review to see how to streamline processes. Colin Macleod, Head of Space Regulation at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, gave Orbital Today an overview of where things sit today.
OT: Regarding launch licences – The CAA announced in May that it was currently processing three spaceport licences. However, there was no mention of the number (if any) of launch licences. Can you give any data on this?
CM: We are currently processing five different launch licences. While it is not appropriate for us to go into detail of who has applied and current progress we are happy to outline the amount of ongoing work being undertaking by the Civil Aviation Authority space regulation team.
We are currently processing over 20 different licences including one spaceport licence. There are further interested parties that have not yet reached the formal application stage so keep watching this space.
OT: Does the CAA have any plans for improving communication in order to better manage expectations and to prevent corporations from trying to push in the media?
CM:The Virgin Orbit launch was the first of its kind in the UK. We were testing a lot of processes for the first time and understandably learned a lot and walked away with an improved, and more robust licencing process.
The space sector is, as you would expect, filled with great innovators and dreamers. Our licencing process allows for innovation to shine but rightfully we must also ensure safety is of paramount importance. We are always looking to expand the understanding of the work of the Civil Aviation Authority in the space sector, and why it is so important that the space industry is safe and sustainable.
OT: How does the CAA hammer home a “safety first” approach in the light of the “iterate past the failures” approach of some New Space companies such as SpaceX?
CM: Those are not incompatible concepts. Part of our work to make sure space activity is safe is to make sure that if it does go wrong, it fails safely. There are many recent examples of the importance of regulation in spaceflight activity. Virgin Orbit is a good example of this in practice. Ultimately, when Virgin Orbit did not reach space it did not fail in a way that harmed people or damaged property. Iterating past failure, with safety measures in place, could still be compatible with our regulatory framework.
OT: The BBC wrote on 15th June, that “The Civil Aviation Authority previously said it [Spaceport Cornwall – ed.] remained a fully licenced Spaceport, but the operating licence would need to be amended before a new operator could launch from there.” What would need to be amended?
CM: The spaceport licence is linked to Virgin Orbit, it will need reviewing and amending as new companies come forward. Depending on who those new companies are and how they operate, there may need to be further considerations to the licence.
OT: Since the Spaceport Cornwall / Virgin Orbit licencing process was uncharted territory for the UK, are there lessons learned being implemented, and how is this happening?
CM: Of course, we were testing a lot of processes for the first time and understandably learned a lot and walked away with an improved, and more robust licencing process.
We did a full lessons learned exercise and we are working on new help for applicants to assist them in understanding what we need and how they can articulate why they are safe to operate. We are doing this across launch and spaceport activities and developing this using our experience of past and current applicants.
We are also further developing our processes on the non-safety tests as required by the legislation – so for example looking at financial, security, prescribed roles, and looking at how to move to earlier licencing with a greater focus on oversight and monitoring which increases the flexibility for us and the applicants as the process progresses.
OT: Space Forge CEO Joshua Western has pointed out that the licencing costs are also an issue. How competitive is the UK in terms of licencing costs, and do you think the expense will diminish as procedures are streamlined?
CM: That is not something we have particularly heard from the industry. We currently only charge for orbital licence applications at the same level which the UKSA previously charged – £6,500. The charge covers the detailed and complex work that UK Civil Aviation Authority experts have to undertake to process a licence.
We are of course always working to make the process as streamlined as possible and that licences can be delivered in a timely manner while also upholding our responsibilities around public safety.