Sutherland Spaceport: How did the UK’s taxpayer-funded spaceport end up in private hands?

23rd Feb 2024
Sutherland Spaceport: How did the UK’s taxpayer-funded spaceport end up in private hands?

When the British government first embarked upon its ambitious journey towards becoming a space superpower, it threw millions of pounds of taxpayer money at private companies looking to help it achieve its goals. The largest recipients of funding via the UK Space Agency were the companies that were offering to build the launch pads and supporting infrastructure.

UK big dream about space: How it started

Amongst those companies was the U.S. military giant Lockheed Martin, which pledged to help in the creation of a launch site in Sutherland on the West coast of Scotland. This was to be in partnership with a Danish/German company, Orbital Express Launch Ltd. (the rocket vehicle manufacturer aka Orbex). 

It would be a fair take to suggest that this launch site, and others, were to form the UK’s new space launch network, for use by all entities that had a need for such facilities. It would be seen as public infrastructure as it was funded from the government purse by taxpayer money, and would be available to a variety of potential operators.

So, with Lockheed Martin in place to help design and build the infrastructure and Orbex as the primary launch vehicle provider (the assumption at this stage would have been that there would ultimately be multiple LVP’s which would each have different requirements), it was then just up to the planning consortium to find a Launch Service Provider to manage the facility and its operations. Now, this is where things started to go wrong.

Sutherland Spaceport: transition from public to private infrastructure

After a long search and absolutely no sign of any potential LSP coming forward, eventually Lockheed Martin stepped away from the project and moved their intentions to another launch site in the Scottish Shetland Isles.

This left Orbex on their own at the site, and eventually, they were given the contract also to manage the site as the official LSP. The plans were then trimmed down so as only to accommodate Orbex launch vehicles. In Orbex’s most recent annual report, they very clearly referred to Sutherland Spaceport as their own private launch facility.

The most obvious outcome was that the Sutherland Spaceport was now removed from the public infrastructure and despite being funded by the taxpayer and driven forward by the UK government and its UK Space Agency, shifting into almost entirely private use by only one company.

With Sutherland now a private facility, the UK’s planned public infrastructure had now been reduced significantly, as had the opportunities for other launch vehicle operators.

All eyes are now focused on the Saxa Vord Spaceport in the Shetland Isles. Sutherland lies relatively undisturbed by construction machines.

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